Bob Dorr and I received sad news in late October about the deaths of two of our Hell Hawk veterans, both contributors and enthusiastic supporters of our work on Hell Hawks! The Untold Story of the American Fliers Who Savaged Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Jim McWhorter, past president of the 365th FIghter Group Association, passed away in Florida on Oct. 22. He was preceded on his final flight by Edgar C. Kiefer, who died in Royal Oak, MI on October 14. Both men were successful and courageous combat pilots with the Hell Hawks. McWhorter told us of his slam-bang shootdown of a Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter on Oct. 12, 1944, an action for which he was awarded with the Distinguished Flying Cross:
“Mac” McWhorter, Red 3, with 1st Lt. Robert S. Maney flying his wing, heard Porter call out the bandits and direct the flight to “prepare to drop belly tanks in ten seconds.” “The hell with waiting,” thought Mac. “I dumped mine immediately . . . and looking up saw [my drop] was in last place!” Following Porter, he climbed through eleven thousand feet at three hundred miles per hour, chasing a flight of Messerschmitts, which scattered and fled. Bouncing one, McWhorter caught his enemy in a climbing right turn at about 270 to 300 miles per hour. He fired a burst that peppered the dark gray fighter’s left wing and chopped loose its left main gear. As the 109 tightened the turn, Mac squeezed off a second burst that riddled the 109’s fuselage and tail. Maney, concentrating on clearing McWhorter’s tail, never saw the enemy but caught a glimpse of the shell casings and belt links pouring from his leader’s wings. He thought for a terrible instant that Mac’s Thunderbolt was disintegrating, hammered by strikes from a German coming head-on.
Instead it was McWhorter who had the range. He fired again just as the enemy pilot jettisoned his canopy. Too late: Mac’s eight fifties blasted the enemy’s cockpit and engine. The Messerschmitt’s Daimler-Benz engine froze, and flames erupted from the 109’s cramped cockpit. McWhorter saw his victim, spinning and aflame, hurtle down to spray a fireball across the landscape below. “In that forty-five seconds or a minute, I didn’t have time to think about that pilot,” said McWhorter. “That 109 was just a target.” He pulled up and circled, looking for more, but by then the enemy was gone. He had a confirmed kill, and his courage and skill were recognized by the award of a Distinguished Flying Cross.
Edgar Kiefer contributed to our research by sharing with us his self-published memoir, A P-47 Pilot’s Recollections of his WWII Battles (written with his son, Richard Kiefer of Boulder, CO). Both men were brave young Americans in 1944-45, a time (like today) when our nation is in vital need of their determination, dedication, and deadly earnestness in combat.
Men like McWhorter and Kiefer will be the subject of my upcoming Hell Hawks! talk to the Service Academies Association at 0745 on Friday, December 12, at the MARRIOTT HOUSTON WESTCHASE HOTEL, 2900 Briar park, Houston, Texas 77042. Hell Hawks! remains the top-selling title at the National Air & Space Museum.
For more of my astronaut speaker appearances, in Houston or nationwide, please watch this space. I’ll also be signing Sky Walking: An Astronaut’s Memoir, at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on Nov. 14, 2008, from 1230-1430.