Adolf Galland Meets the Pilot Who Almost Killed Him

FOE AND FRIEND, NO HARD FEELINGS!

By Henry Sakaida

On 26 April 1945, German ace Lt/Gen Adolf Galland led his jets against a flight of American B-26 bombers. After knocking out his 104th enemy aircraft, he made a wide turn to make another attack. According to his book, The First and the Last, he was ambushed from above by a P-51 Mustang and dove into nearby clouds and escaped.  For the fighting general, he was now out of the war.



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Luftwaffe General Adolf Galland, CO of JV-44

Ever since high school when I read Galland’s book, I had wondered about the American pilot who had shot down the famous German ace. It was now 1978. Back then, WWII USAAF records were held at the Albert F. Simpson Historical Research Center at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. I requested copies of the combat report for 26 April 1945 and received some encouraging information.

James Eastman, Chief of the Research Branch wrote: “Extensive research has revealed that the Me-262 was probably downed by one of two individuals: 1st Lt James J. Finnegan, 0702783, then of San Francisco, Calif. or Capt. Robert W. Clark, 0427523, then of Spearfish, South Dakota. Both men were with the 10th Fighter Sq. and were escorting a formation of B-26s which were flying a strike against Schrobenhausen. That would have put them in the general area that you mentioned.”

“Since you say that the Me-262 dived through some clouds while trailing smoke, we feel that the probability is great that the opposing pilot was Lt. Finnegan, since his claim was that he damaged an Me-262. Capt. Clark, on the other hand, claimed and was credited with an aircraft destroyed. This means that the other U.S. pilots saw the aircraft strike the ground.”

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The Messerschmitt Me 262 was the world’s first operational jet



With the new information in hand, I fired off a letter to retired Galland at his home in Bonn, Germany. On 29 September 1978, I received a nice typed letter in English from the German ace. He wrote: “I am very much interested in getting to know the name and address of the P-51 fighter pilot, who has seriously damaged and nearly shot down me in my Me-262 on 26 April 1945. You can take it for sure that one of the two mentioned ones belonging to the 10th Fighter Squadron must have been the one. Schrobenhausen as target is just correct.”

Galland mistakenly assumed that it was a Mustang who hit him.

Adolf Galland mistakenly assumed that it was a Mustang who hit his Me 262.

“Unfortunately I am not able to give you more information about the color scheme, markings, etc. because we only had white numbers on both sides of the fuselages in front of the cockpit.  And I don’t remember anymore, which my Me-262 had on that special day. Anyway, the Mustang pilot wouldn’t have been able to recognize any markings. All Me-262s at that time had the same color scheme.”

“In this context I furthermore have to tell you that only a few seconds before the Mustang pilot damaged my craft, I had shot down one of the two B-26s. Since my craft had got so severe hits, the pilot of the attacking P-51 also might have thought I was already shot down.”

Out of sheer desperation, I placed a small classified advertisement in a hunting/gun newspaper called The Shotgun News. The ad read:

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Three Republic P-47 Thunderbolts in Formation

“Looking for 1/Lt James J. Finnegan, then of San Francisco, who served in the USAAF 10th squadron, 50th Fighter Group in Europe in April 1945.” I never expected to find him.

“Hey Jim, some guy in Orange County is looking for you!” said Jim’s hunting friend over the telephone. While Finnegan wasn’t a gun and hunting enthusiast, his lawyer friend was. But Finnegan wasn’t buying it just yet.

“Didn’t you serve in the 50th Fighter Group?” asked Fred. Jim answered in the affirmative.  “Then you’re the guy! Here’s the guy’s name and address, you should contact him and find out what this is all about!”

On 15 December 1978, Finnegan responded with a letter. “A friend of mine called today to inform me that he had read an ad in the classified section of the Shotgun News dated December 12, 1978. This is to inform you that I am James J. Finnegan and I did in fact fly fighters with the 10th Fighter Squadron, 9th Air Force in France during World War II. However, during that time I did not fly P-51s but P-47s since we were a Tactical Fighter Group.”



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B-26 Marauder, the type of bomber being escorted by James Finnegan and his fellow P-47 Pilots

I couldn’t believe my luck! Mr. Finnegan had provided me with his home phone number. I dialed the number and prayed that he would answer. He did. I knew from watching TV cop shows that I should not ask leading questions. After introducing myself as an aviation historian, I started my friendly “interrogation.”

“Mr. Finnegan, did you ever fight German jets during the war?” I asked. There was a long pause.  “Sir, are you still there?”

“Yeah, it was so long ago!” Finnegan stammered. “But yes, I do recall a very brief encounter. I haven’t thought about this in years! It lasted for a few seconds. Let me think about this for a bit…”

“So what happened? Can you recall the details? Were you on patrol or doing reconnaissance or flying a fighter strike on some target?” I probed.

“Nah, actually, we were flying escort for a group of B-26 bombers and I was flying top cover over them when it happened.” Now Jim was getting started.  “We were over the Danube. Suddenly, these two jets appeared out of nowhere, coming in very fast! Then in the blink of an eye, they fired and knocked down two bombers right out of the air!” Jim was now fully involved in his narrative.

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Capt. Jim Finnegan on his P-47 in 1945 with his crew chief (Photo via James Finnegan)

“After a moment, I saw one of the 262s below me flying in the opposite direction. I turned over on my back, pulled tight on my stick and almost immediately had the enemy aircraft in my sights. I got off two quick bursts but couldn’t see if I hit anything because the nose of my aircraft was pulled high to get a good lead. However, I then dropped the nose and observed what I thought were bits and pieces coming from the cowling. In addition, I saw smoke trailing from the wing…”

Jim was now on a roll. “I attempted to close in again to get another shot but the German aircraft disappeared in the clouds. Because I never saw it hit the ground, I claimed a ‘damaged and probable’ in the engagement. This was later confirmed by my wingman.”

In his memoir, Adolf Galland recalled his near-death encounter: “A hail of fire enveloped me. A sharp rap hit my right knee. The instrument panel with its indispensable instruments was shattered. The right engine was also hit. Its metal covering worked loose in the wind and was partly carried away. Now the left engine was, too. I could hardly hold her in the air.”



The general struggled frantically to nurse his badly damaged jet back to an airfield near Munich, which at the moment was being attacked by other P-47 Thunderbolts. He bolted out of the cockpit and found cover in a nearby bomb crater.

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Adolf Galland (left) and Jim Finnegan (right), San Rafael, CA 1979.

“Mr. Finnegan!” I finally exclaimed, “What you did in that encounter undoubtedly saved the lives of many Americans! The guy you knocked down in that jet was a super ace! He was a great fighter/leader, became a general at age 30, flew combat in the Spanish Civil War in 1937, fought in the Battle of Britain, was highly decorated by Hitler, and he shot down 104  British and American planes!”

There was this long pause. “Will you repeat what you just said right now?” Finnegan begged. “I’m not sure if I heard this right!”

I proceeded to give the astonished ex-fighter pilot the details of General Galland’s illustrious career. “He is alive and well, and he is waiting in Germany for me to contact him after this interrogation!” I added.

“I was only 22 years old and had 120 missions under my belt” explained Finnegan. “I shot down three planes during the war, and you’re saying that this guy shot down one hundred and four?!”

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General Adolf Galland (left and Jim Finnegan (right) in August 1979. Galland admires the painting of aviation artist Frank Wooten, titled “The Last Combat.” It depicts Galland being attacked by Jim Finnegan after shooting down a B-26 on 26 April 1945

The two former fighter pilots sent letters of introduction and greetings to each other and it was the start of a beautiful friendship. In August 1979, Jim Finnegan and Adolf Galland were formally “reunited.” Finnegan picked up his old opponent at San Francisco International Airport for a visit to his home in nearby San Rafael. They chatted and joked for hours like old friends. The general told Finnegan that he still had a souvenir from their meeting. “I’ve still got one fragment here from where you hit me, Jim!” laughed Galland. Later on, the Finnegans were guests of Adolf Galland at his home in Germany.

I brought closure to two people which profoundly changed their lives.  James J. Finnegan was given the moniker “Red Baron” by his friends and acquaintances; he became an avid WWII aviation buff who continued his friendship with his old enemy until General Galland passed away in February 1996 at age 83.  Jim died in April 2008 at age 85.

Correspondence Between Adolf Galland and Jim Finnegan:

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January 4, 1979 Letter From Jim Finnegan to Adolf Galland (Click to Enlarge)

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Reverse of the letter (Click to Enlarge)

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Responding Letter from Adolf Galland (Click to Enlarge)

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Letter to Henry Sakaida from Jim Finnegan after meeting with Galland (Click to Enlarge)

 



For More About Adolf Galland Check out:

The First and the Last


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4 thoughts on “Adolf Galland Meets the Pilot Who Almost Killed Him

  • Joe says:

    Amazing story!

  • John says:

    This is a terrific story! And a great little bit of sleuthing on your part 🙂 I have read “The First and the Last” – wonderful book. I would have liked to have met both of these gentlemen.

  • Henry Sakaida says:

    Thank you gentlemen for your kind words! All this research was done before we had personal computers! It’s much more easier today. It was a thrill to get the former enemies together, especially Galland who was a great leader.

  • Peter Kubicek says:

    On April 20, 1945, the infamous Sachsenhausen Hunger March started. Some 30,000 prisoners were forced to march for 12 days. We were finally liberated on May 2 in a small forest about one mile south of the Schwerin, a town in northern Germany. When we got there Schwerin was swarming with American troops. The American soldiers greeted us with open arms and immediately started distributing food to us.
    I will always gratefully remember this event — even though 71 years passed since that date.

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