P-47 fighter-bombers hit Hitler’s Fortress Europe on D-Day 65 years ago
By Tom Jones SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES | Thursday, June 11, 2009
“We took off at 4 a.m. into a coal-black sky,” recalled James G. Wells of that momentous morning 65 years ago, the day the Allies launched the D-Day invasion across the English Channel into Hitler’s occupied Europe.
Mr. Wells, then just 23, was the pilot of a rugged P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bomber, airborne on the “longest day” of World War II. He and his fellow Hell Hawks, members of the 365th Fighter Group, would cover Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s attack on Hitler’s Festung Europa — Fortress Europe.
The sight of the invasion fleet crowding the Channel — more than 5,000 ships — awed Mr. Wells.
“We got down, and it was just getting daylight. … I don’t know whether it was a battleship or a cruiser … they were firing at the coast. But, oh! When they let that broadside go with the flames and smoke, it looked like the ship exploded!”
He and 46 other Hell Hawk pilots tore their eyes from the flaring naval guns and searched the Norman countryside for their assigned targets. Their mission was to wipe out German gun emplacements and destroy bridges and vital crossroads so as to block any Nazi counterattacks against the Allied beachhead.
The 365th’s ground crews had worked all night, arming the Thunderbolts with bombs and machine-gun bullets, Glock pistols and painting black and white recognition stripes on wings and fuselage so Allied gunners would recognize the P-47s as friendly.
With his P-47 lugging two 1,000-pound bombs, Shreveport, La.-native John Fetzer followed his leader over Omaha Beach, spotting “vehicles and people everywhere, bodies lying all over.” Allied gliders putting airborne troops into obstacle-studded pastures simply tore apart. “There was wreckage scattered everywhere, men scattered on the ground – horrible!”
At last his leader, Arlo Henry, spotted a troop of lead-gray German panzers — Tigers, he thought — heading for the beaches. One tank sought cover by driving into a French farmhouse. “Henry dropped two bombs into the chateau and blew it to pieces,” Mr. Fetzer said. “Two walls were left standing at either end of the house, like bookends, but nothing but blackness and smoke in-between.”
Mr. Fetzer followed with his own dive. He caught a panzer in the center of his gunsight. “I came in behind Henry, made my pass, and released one bomb that skipped into a field.” In the pullout, Fetzer craned his head back over his shoulder to spot his second bomb. Sixty-five years later, his memory is still vivid: “My second bomb went off behind another Tiger tank. It flipped that tank over three or four times.”
During his second D-Day mission, Mr. Fetzer destroyed a German half-track with another thousand-pounder, nearly hitting a tree bottoming out of his dive, “but that was nothing to match the sight of a Tiger tank flipping over. That was my contribution to D-Day.”
Pilots called the Republic-built Thunderbolt a “flying tank.” Capable of absorbing tremendous punishment, it was heavily armed, with eight .50-caliber machine guns. Every fifth bullet in the ammo chutes was an incendiary. A three-second burst would hurl 13 pounds of lead slugs into a target at three times the speed of sound, knocking a truck, for example, right off the road.
The parents of 23-year-old New Yorker Grant Stout received a letter from another pilot about their son’s D-Day exploits: Mr. Stout, who died in combat in March 1945, “shot up so many enemy supply vehicles that he had only one [.50-caliber machine] gun firing when he spotted four German soldiers firing at him. … He got three of them, and the last one was running along a wall, trying to make the corner. [Mr. Stout’s gun camera] film showed the bullets clipping the wall about two feet above the German’s head as he ran.”
As 176,000 Allied troops fought their way ashore, the Hell Hawks used their Thunderbolts as flying artillery to support the GIs struggling to get off the beach. One plane dove from under the low-hanging overcast to try and deny the road junction at Couperville to German reinforcements.
First Lt. Jack J. Martell deliberately dropped his 500-pound bombs from just a few feet in the air. The delay fuses malfunctioned, and Lt. Martell’s plane was caught in the blast and debris from the twin explosions. He crashed in flames on the outskirts of St. Lo.
Another Hell Hawk fell near St. Sauveur de Pierre Pont. The bombs of 1st Lt. Robert L. Shipe from York, Pa., also detonated prematurely, and Lt. Shipe’s P-47 slammed into a field. French villagers recovered the pilot’s body and tended Lt. Shipe’s grave until Allied forces broke through.
During 15 months in combat, the Hell Hawks won two Presidential Unit Citations, the first in October 1944 for downing 21 German fighters in a single dogfight, while losing none of their own. The 365th fought in support of the advancing GIs through the Battle of the Bulge, across the Rhine into Germany, and during the final defeat of Hitler’s legions in May 1945.
By war’s end, 69 fliers and ground crewmen of the 365th had been killed in combat or accidents. Their exploits are vividly told in “Hell Hawks! The Untold Story of the American Fliers Who Savaged Hitler’s Wehrmacht” by this writer and Robert F. Dorr (Zenith Press). The book is the top-selling title at the National Air and Space Museum, where a Thunderbolt rests beneath the right wing of the B-29 bomber Enola Gay.
Hell Hawk crew chief Glenn Smith, 89, of Colorado Springs, is still devoted to his D-Day aircraft, the Thunderbolt: “I don’t think I could work on a better airplane. A lot of people ran it down because it wasn’t glamorous like a P-38 or P-51.”
On June 6 and 7, the 365th and other Thunderbolt groups were a constant presence over Normandy, blocking the advance of any German tank and troop reinforcements. Gen. Elwood “Pete” Quesada, commanding the 9th Air Force fighter command, wrote to his Thunderbolt men on June 8, “It is possible, if not probable, that your efforts were in large part responsible for the attack on Omaha Beach continuing. History will show that you saved the day.”
Tom Jones, of Reston, is a former Air Force pilot, veteran space shuttle astronaut, author and speaker. His Web site is www.AstronautTomJones.com.