Air Force Times ran this excerpt from “Hell Hawks!” in their June 8 issue. I salute all those who served on D-Day, and honor those Americans and Allies who fell. My thanks go to the families of all those who lost a loved one in Allied service on D-Day.
From the cockpit of his own P-47 Thunderbolt, Robert Lewis Coffey Jr. looked down at a sight few men would witness and all would remember forever. It was about 5:50 a.m. on June 6, 1944, still almost dark, a gray, murky daylight beginning to define itself off Coffey’s left shoulder high over the English Channel.
Coffey was looking down at thousands of ships and boats in the armada, the main thrust of the Allied invasion of France, already underway. From the roomy cockpit of his robust fighter, leading 47 planes into battle, Coffey took in the size and scale of the armada. He did not see the fighting that was now unfolding on the shores ahead, where 176,000 Allied troops were pouring ashore at five Normandy invasion beaches — Juno, Sword, Gold, Utah and Omaha. In fact he had little time for reflection. He was more pragmatic than philosophical anyway, and his job for the moment was to lead his big fighters, nicknamed “Jugs” because of their portly contours, to attack three targets that lay just inland, ahead of the invasion.
Coffey was a lieutenant colonel. He commanded the 388th Fighter Squadron, one of three in a group which would soon be in the middle of the war on the European continent, a fight both bloody and very personal. Later in his brief life Coffey would be a politician, and he looked the part, “a pretty sturdy guy with black hair and a mustache,” a fellow pilot recalled later. “He was a good pilot. He was aggressive.” Another pilot called Coffey “suave” and “debonair,” and he was married to a beautiful Puerto Rican girl whom some of his buddies had met, admired, and maybe fantasized about. Coffey was just 26 years old but had been in uniform for almost two years before the United States entered the war. He was older and more mature than his fellow Hell Hawks, who were mostly younger men plucked from civilian life shortly after Pearl Harbor. Coffey was a leader. Today was the show.
Coffey was busy monitoring his formation, correcting his course, performing routine cockpit tasks, keeping his eye on fuel flow and r.p.m.’s, and listening to the throb of his 18-cylinder Double Wasp radial engine. He must have been too busy to think much about the greatest invasion in history, apart from his own role in it. Coffey’s focus as he “coasted in” over Utah Beach on D-Day, one of the great days of history, was on his set of targets: a railroad bridge southwest of St. Sauveur de Pierre-Pont, a culvert at Couperville, and an embankment at St. Sauveur.
One pilot in Coffey’s flight, 2nd Lt. Robert L. Saferite, recalled that the stormy weather of the day before had cleared late, when Saferite returned from a mission at dusk and glimpsed the invasion fleet below. Now, flying with Coffey, Saferite looked down at Utah Beach, where GIs rushing ashore faced only a fraction of the resistance turning the water red at Omaha. Utah was near Cherbourg on the Cotentin Peninsula; the beach itself was backed by numerous small villages, but Saferite was searching for the enemy, in the darkened fields below, and in the murky sky. “There were plenty of German guns ready for us there,” said Saferite. “Our job was air-to-ground but we were also looking around alertly for German aircraft in case we’d have to fight them.” But his flight was seemingly alone in the sky. “We did not see a single German aircraft.” Saferite and the rest of Coffey’s flight bored in toward their targets.
Coffey might have been in command of all the Hell Hawks in the air that morning, but the Group’s 387th Fighter Squadron was on the deck, barely 250 feet off the surface of the Channel, its dozen Thunderbolts headed inland under the command of the squadron operations officer, Capt. Arlo Henry. He was as experienced that morning as any man in a P-47 cockpit. One of his fellow pilots called him a “daring flier” who smoked a cigar on takeoff, against the rules. Another said simply that Henry was “stocky, but not fat, laid-back, with a round face” and that he “kind of ambled along.” Henry also had nightmares and sometimes screamed out from his bunk in the darkness, but the Group fielded no bolder, better-skilled fighter pilot. His plane was dubbed “Turnip Termite,” in the final 24 hours of its existence as a flying machine.
Henry’s Thunderbolts each carried two 1,000-pound bombs, one under each wing; other Hell Hawks in the air that day were hauling three 500-pounders, one hung on the fuselage centerline.
Henry’s wingman was 1st Lt. John H. Fetzer Jr. piloting a Thunderbolt with the name “Madam” emblazoned in red letters across the nose. A Louisiana boy with the distinct drawl associated with Shreveport, Fetzer remembers that the Hell Hawks took off in darkness, found murky daylight over the Channel, and were en route to Normandy to “strafe or bomb anything, any German we found, a half-track, tanks or infantry.”
At Omaha Beach, Fetzer looked down at “vehicles and people everywhere, bodies lying all over.” The formation of Jugs continued inland at near treetop level; visible everywhere was the aftermath of the night-time Allied airborne assault that had kicked off the invasion. Fetzer saw an American paratrooper dangling from a tree, head down, inert. He saw gliders attempting to land and others strewn across the fields and hedgerows of Normandy. “The Germans had laid tree trunks to prevent gliders from landing. There was wreckage scattered everywhere, men scattered on the ground — horrible!” Parts of the invasion had begun badly, and if the Hell Hawks and their P-47 Thunderbolts were going to help those paratroopers and glidermen they needed to make a dent in German defenses.
Beneath the murk, in the wet green-brown fields of France, Arlo Henry came upon a formation of lead-gray Tiger tanks. That’s just what our boys on the beaches don’t need, thought Fetzer, close on Henry’s wing. If the panzers were shooting at them, Fetzer didn’t notice it; anyway, the pilots had learned by now to ignore ground fire. Fetzer maintained that you never knew when you might get hit and there was no purpose in dwelling on it.
One of the Tigers followed a standard armor tactic — driving into a large house, a chateau, really, and allowing the structure to collapse around him, providing camouflage and cover. Other Tigers were rumbling through the nearby village, one of them clearly a communications vehicle with an antenna fully 30 feet tall. The Thunderbolt pilots briefly exchanged words and hand signals; then, Henry led the attack.
“Henry dropped two bombs into the chateau and blew it to pieces,” said Fetzer. “It was an odd kind of destruction because there were two walls left standing, one at either end of the house, like bookends, but nothing but blackness and smoke in between.” Fetzer was wary of the delay fuses on the thousand-pounders; he didn’t want to get caught in his leader’s bomb blasts. He gave his boss plenty of spacing and dove, putting the panzer at the center of his gunsight. “I came in behind Henry, made my pass, and released one bomb that skipped into a field. My second bomb went off behind another Tiger tank.” Fetzer craned his head back over his shoulder in the pullout and watched the result of his drop in amazement. Sixty-three years later the memory is still vivid: “It flipped that tank over three or four times! Later in the day on my second mission, I destroyed a halftrack with a thousand-pounder and nearly mushed into the tree when pulling out, but that was nothing to match the sight of a Tiger tank flipping over. That was my contribution to D-Day.”
“Hell Hawks!” is a history of an aerial band of brothers, that of the 365th Fighter Group in World War II. Robert F. Dorr and Thomas D. Jones are the authors.