FIGHTER PILOTS FLY IN TRIBUTE TO INFANTRY – 9th AF Goes All-Out To Make Ground Job Easier, No Op Too Tough If It Will Help Doughboys

By Bud Hutton

Stars and Stripes Staff Writer

From the July 12, 1944 Edition of Stars and Stripes

A NINTH THUNDERBOLT BASE, NORMANDY–Six weeks ago the air force was fighting all the war there was to fight in the ETO. When the fighter pilots weren’t flying against the Luftwaffe they worked out on dive-bombing missions. The high command told them they’d support the infantry, when the day came, and when someone called them “the infantryman’s air force” they were a little amused and good-naturedly tolerant about it.

Today–and every day since they came to Normandy–the fighter pilots are proud as hell of being the infantryman’ air force and they don’t want any quotes around the phrase, either.

The high command said go to France, so the fighter groups of the Ninth Air stowed their gear in the boxes which had been waiting a long time and went to the scarred wheat fields beyond the Normandy coast which the infantrymen had won for them, and which the engineers had cleared, sometimes under fire.

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Engineers in Normandy build an airstrip for 9th AAF fighter bombers

They moved to Normandy, where there are foxholes and maybe the luxury of pup tents instead of Nissen huts; they left steaks and oranges for C ration stew; they found out what tin hats are for washing and shaving and shell fragments. They left London leave and the Ritz bar for a glass of cider once in a while at a farmhouse. And because they’ve seen a little of what it takes to be an infantryman, they’re pretty happy to have their groups fly four or five or six missions a day to bomb and strafe the strongpoints ahead of the doughs. It’s a different war for the fighter folks now.

Matter of Simplicity

In the evening, an infantryman with a couple stars on his tin hat will talk with two-starred Pete Quesada, and before the late summer darkness a call comes to the camouflaged headquarters tents of, say, Lt. Col. Harold N. Hold, the Philadelphia skipper of a P47 outfit. Dawn alert.

The pilots crawl out of dew-wet blankets to Nescafe and dog biscuits, even as the rest of the Army; they head for briefing, which was an informal affair back when they flew from concrete and macadam runways, but is reduced to matter-of-fact simplicity now.

“This bridge,” Col. Holt tells them, “is hard to find. It’s just a little thing. The infantry wants it cut.”

He tells them a lot more, about who’ll fly high cover and who’ll bomb, but the important thing was that the infantry wanted it smashed. Capt. James Barnhardt, from Rutherford College, N.C., takes the other seven pilots who will bomb out with him. Maj. Clure Smith, of Pampa, Tex., and three others will fly high fighter cover.

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9th AAF P47 Pilots are briefed for their mission in Normandy

Out in the cleared patches of what used to be a wheat field, S/Sgt. Vernet De Haven, of Mt. Clemens, Mich., has been getting Johnny Rebel ready for its 90th mission without an abortion. Down the line a little, S/Sgt. Eldor N.J. Dahl, of Kenosha, Wis., has checked the tail wheel, bomb racks and tires–big trouble points in this war of dust and mud on the runways–of P47 Mary Evelyn, named after Lt. Bill Grounds’ wife. The line crews have the ships ready. Another mission may go off in half an hour.

They trundle down the steel mesh which covers the mud scars, with the pigeon toed strut that P47s have, and gun through the dust into the air. They head for Carentan, some miles to the west, and their talk comes over the horn in the control tower run by Lt. Bob Balkam, of Quincy, Mass.

“Butterscotch Red  leader here. Target sighted. Arm your bombs.” That’s Barnhardt, the bomber leader.

“Make ’em count. Hold those bombs. Take it easy. One at a time.” That’s Smith, flying high cover, jockeying the boys into position, a coach’s running commentary.

The eight bombed-up fighters hover above the bridge which helps feed German resistance south of Carentan, and peel off deliberately, one by one. They’re dropping delayed-action bombs, so that when they come out of their 30-degree glide and release the 500 pounders, they will be clear of the blast. One by one they go in.

“OK, Merz, it’s up to you to knock that thing out.” Smith again. This is a small target. The bombs are missing.

“Overshot. Overshot.”

“White leader going in.”

“White two. Get into formation. Stay up there.” Smith from the top bleachers keeps the beavers in line. This is a job to be cold and deliberate about, because one man is pilot, navigator, bombardier and gunner.

“Bogies out there at three o’clock.”

That’s unidentified fighter planes. But they see the high cover and veer off.

“All right, overhead. Butterscotch Red here. All bombs away except two hung up. We’re coming home. Results…results poor.”

Releases Don’t Work

They come back to base. The pilots whose release gear hasn’t worked–mechanics curse and hate Normandy mud and dust–land last, so that if their bombs go off it won’t tear up the runway for the rest. Sometimes hung-up bombs shock loose at the bumpy landings, and roll crazily around the strip. Last week Col. Holt ran over one and it fouled up in his tail wheel, 500 pounds of trouble. It didn’t go off, so he’s still running the show.

There is a quick critique when they come in, and Barnhardt wants to take four more ships and go right back, but it is decided to lay on a regular mission with another squadron, the fourth of the day for the group. Lt. Col. John Pease, rangy, loose-jointed group deputy from Boise Idaho will lead it. At the briefing a pilot murmurs, “Ol’ dead-eye Pease. It’s a cinch.”

The dust was scarcely settled from the earlier landing when Pease leads them out on the group’s 44th mission since they flew here to live.

Pease takes them back to Carentan and south. Eight planes with two 500s each, four 47s to fight if the need arises. The talk begins again over the RT:

“Hello, White leader. shall I go down now?”

“That’s the target. Go ahead.”

There are pauses, broken by the announcement that White Two and White Three and so on are going in.

“Hello, White leader. Shall I go take a look?”

The answer is “Yes,” and there is a time of waiting while the fighters drone around in circles. Then, dryly, laconically: “The target is completely destroyed.”

“Ok. Let’s go after the other one, down the line. Two ships left with bombs.”

Damage the Bridge

They hit that bridge, too, seriously damaging it, and come home. Tomorrow, maybe, Pease will lead a flight which won’t e able to nail the target squarely, and Barnhard or someone else will go out again, and again, and keep after it until the job is made easier for the men in the foxholes down below. This day, they’ll keep at this sort of job until after 10 o’clock, which is getting pretty late to land a 16,000-pound fighter plane on some chicken wire stretched over a reformed Normandy wheat field.

Since D-Day, including some days of flying from bases in England, the group has destroyed 20 German aircraft for certain. It has lost 19 of its own. But in losing those it has dive-bombed, skip-bombed, strafed, escorted bombers and flown fighter sweeps.

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Flames are extinguished on a crash landed P47

In making those scores, the fighter people think they maybe, a little bit, they have been overlooked in the telling of the story of the war. The stories are about the infantry these days. But strangely, although they had all the stories there were, back when they were doing all the fighting there was, the fighter people aren’t unhappy that now they’re sort of in the spear-carrying, background ranks. They know what the infantry has to do to reach those places they bomb. They figure that’s as tough as war can get, and anything good anyone has to say for the doughs is okay by them.

For Further Reading Check Out:

If You Survive: From Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge to the End of World War II, One American Officer’s Riveting True Story

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