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History of the WWII Hell Hawks

The History of the 365th FBG

Page: 2/7

The Air War Nobody Told You About
P-47 Thunderbolts on the Continent of Europe, 1944-45
Combat Aircraft, March 2004
by Robert F. Dorr and Thomas D. Jones

The P-47 Thunderbolt evoked fierce loyalty from pilots who flew it, but today one group of P-47 veterans is bitter. Thunderbolt veterans who fought on the European continent in the final year of World War II feel that their contribution has been forgotten. "People don't know we were there," said retired Col. James L. "Mac" McWhorter. "Air-to-ground action wasn't glamorous, and it attracted very little attention."

Today, war often appears clean and efficient when viewed on television screens.

But P-47 pilots know that combat can be dirty, gritty, and ugly. Consider, for example, the citation awarded to pilots of the 406th Fighter Group, for destroying a column of German vehicles attempting to escape advancing Allied forces near Chateauroux, France:

"Thirty-six P-47's of the 406th Fighter Group took off on September 7, 1944 at 15:05 hours and raced south of the Loire River to find the road from Chateauroux to Issoudon clogged with military transport, horse drawn vehicles, horse drawn artillery, armored vehicles and personnel. Attacking this enemy concentration, at minimum altitude, in spite of accurate ground fire, the...pilots...made pass after pass until their bombs, rockets, and ammunition were expended. The road was blocked for 15 miles with personnel casualties, wrecked and burning military transport. More than 300 enemy military vehicles were destroyed in this attack alone."

The citation continues: "The group returned to home base, and after being refueled and rearmed in a minimum length of time, returned to the scene of the action. Before the enemy could reorganize and extract the remnants of his column, a further 187 vehicles, including 25 ammunition carriers, were attacked and destroyed. In spite of intermittent rain and the hazard of landing at night on a slick tar paper runway...."

Left out of the citation is the fact that Thunderbolts frequently strafed horse-drawn supply columns, leaving behind tangled, bloody carcasses. Thunderbolt pilot Tom Glenn says, "The horses were not our enemy, but our assignment was to prevent those columns from harming our troops." The gruesome sight sometimes made pilots physically ill---not what they expected when they signed up for pilot training starry-eyed about the beauty of flight. "No one would call this slipping the surly bonds," says Glenn, in a reference to the lofty words of the poem "High Flight."

Those who sat in P-51 Mustang cockpits at high altitude on escort missions to Berlin were able to savor a little of the joy of flying. But for Ninth Air Force fighter pilots, the job meant living in infantry-like conditions at snow-covered, mud airstrips on the Continent and flying low-level strafing and bombing runs---"not clean, not comfortable, and certainly not glamorous," says Glenn, "but necessary...."

Low-Level Hell
To a man, the dozen P-47 pilots interviewed for this article agree that they might not be alive today had they been flying the P-51 instead of the rugged, eminently survivable Thunderbolt. As Americans learned later in Korea, the under-fuselage cooling system of the P-51 made the Mustang vulnerable to gunfire at low altitude, even small-arms fire from infantry rifles. The Mustang was a feisty filly at higher elevation, but the Thunderbolt offered the best chance to stay alive down low where the metal was flying around.

Not for nothing, the Farmingdale, N. Y. manufacturer of the Thunderbolt was called the "Republic Iron Works" and had a reputation for building fighters that were big, roomy, and survivable. One P-47 returned to its European base with body parts from a German soldier embedded in its engine cowling. Another landed safely riddled with 138 holes from bullets and shrapnel.

P-47s rolled out of American factories in greater numbers than any other U. S. fighter, ever. There were 15,683 P-47s, a figure that compares to 15,486 P-51s, 13,143 P-40 Warhawks, and 10,037 P-38 Lightnings. But while the ubiquity of the Thunderbolt is undeniable, P-47 pilots are accustomed to being slighted. In an appalling gaffe, the U.S. National Air and Space Museum did not have a P-47 on permanent display until the omission was rectified in late 2003 at the museum's new Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport, Washington, D.C. The Museum has long been the owner of a pristine, Evansville-built P-47D-30-RA (44-32691) but for many years had it loaned out to the Museum of Aviation at Warner Robins, Ga.

For men caught up in a down-and-dirty conflict on the European continent, it was indeed fortunate that the Thunderbolt existed at all---especially since the aircraft emerged from a conversation aboard a railroad car traveling between Dayton, Ohio, and New York in 1940. Republic Aviation's chief designer Alexander "Sasha" Kartveli, Army Capt. Marshall "Mish" Roth, and Republic's C. Hart Miller were coming back from a Wright Field conference, where they had learned that Republic's two fighters then being proposed to the Army, the P-44 Rocket and the XP-47 lightweight fighter, failed to give Army Air Corps the performance it wanted.

The trio discussed ways to exploit the best of what they had already -- the 2,000-hp. Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp18-cylinder, twin-row air-cooled engine they had selected for the XP-47, a superb cockpit design, and the proven airfoil and wing of the P-43 Lancer and the proposed P-44. They talked of building on these positive features to create a more robust fighter. Kartveli jotted notes on the back of an envelope, giving rise to the myth that the Thunderbolt was designed this way.

The first XP-47B---a wholly different aircraft from the never-built XP-44 and XP-47---took to the air on May 6, 1941, with Republic's Lowery Brabham at the controls. Built around its massive engine and the extensive ducting system for its turbo supercharger, the new fighter dwarfed its competitors.Early in its career, pilots dubbed the aircraft the "Jug" because of its portly shape. Contrary to accounts published much later, the nickname had nothing to do with the P-47 being a juggernaut, although it assuredly was one.

By the time the Allies landed in Europe, the "razorback" configuration of early Thunderbolts (and the automobile-style door of the prototype) was giving way to the bubble canopy found on late P-47D models. The typical P-47D flown on the Continent by Ninth Air Force pilots had a 2,535- R-2800-59W radial, a 17,500-pound takeoff weight, and eight .50-caliber (12.7-mm) Browning M3 machine guns packing 250 rounds each.

Formidable Fighter
Fifteen fighter groups, 45 squadrons, and about 14,000 pilots and maintainers made up the Thunderbolt force on the continent. For these men, air-to-air combat---normally the way a fighter pilot attained glory---was secondary. As 2nd Lt. Leslie Boze of the 365th Fighter Squadron described it, "We felt our efforts would help to win the war."

By D-Day, June 6, 1944, Thunderbolts were pouring from factories faster than pilots could fly them away. They were soon arriving in the combat zone in natural metal finish, devoid of the olive-drab camouflage scheme in which the Thunderbolt began its operational service. They were decorated with caricatures and names---the term "nose art" had not yet been invented---that reflected the personalities of their pilots. McWhorter's P-47 was named "Haulin' Ass." Boze's was "Blonde Trouble."

Bob Hagan of the 365th Fighter Group, the "Hell Hawks," remembers that the air-to-ground war seemed "very personal," as when he engaged in a one-on-one contest with a German gunner while strafing troops in a forest. Hagan remembers the gunner tracking him through each pass in the contest of survival, he did his best to outwit his adversary by jinking, then returning to make another strafing run. The war at low altitude could be very personal but on that occasion Hagan doesn't know whether he got the gunner after two or three passes. Looking down through trees, snow, and mush, he couldn't tell.

"I felt comfortable handling the Jug," Hagan said. "It was big and heavy [with a gross weight of 19,400 lb. in the P-47D-25 model], but it never felt that way." Hagan recalled that the P-47 created less engine torque than the P-40 Warhawk flown during training, that the Thunderbolt took off smoothly, and that acceleration forces rarely exceeded the 3 or 4 Gs encountered for a few seconds when coming off a target.

Hagan said the pilot did not feel the bombs coming off during a high-speed dive. He said Thunderbolt pilots typically closed to about 200 yards before opening fire on a ground target. "You could see smoke trailing from other Thunderbolts when they were firing. You sensed a vibration when the guns were being fired, but no big shaking." Thunderbolt pilots believed their eight guns gave them enormous firepower. Gun camera film supported that view

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