Louis Curdes, American Ace who Shot Down an American Plane

When Louis Curdes graduated flight school in 1942, he thought he was invincible. The instructors and officers had taught the men that they were too good and too well equipped to be defeated, and as a young pilot, Louis Curdes admitted he was dumb enough to believe it. After flight school, he was sent to North Africa and assigned to the 95th Fighter Squadron, 82nd Fighter Group which flew P-38 Lightnings.

Curdes’ daring came out on his first mission on May 13, 1943 when he took on five Bf-109s over the Bay of Tunis by himself, shooting down three and damaging another. He shot down two more Germans a week later and added an Italian plane to his score. He became the first fighter ace in his home town of Fort Wayne, Indiana and his mother and father basked in the limelight of their hero son.

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Louis Curdes in front of his P-38 at Souk-el-Arba, Algeria in 1943

By August 1943, he had flown 44 missions and had over 200 hours of combat flying to his credit. On August 27, Curdes flew an escort mission guarding B-25 Mitchell bombers to a target in Benevento, Italy. The bombers all made it through okay, but a P-38 radioed for help and Curdes went to assist. He found the other American pilot in a dogfight against five Bf-109’s. Curdes shot down two but was badly damaged in the fight and had to crash land in Italy.

Curdes was captured by the Italians and was sent to a monastery that held prisoners of war. A week later, Curdes and half a dozen other men escaped but were recaptured. When Italy surrendered on September 8, 1943, Curdes and the other prisoners decided to escape before they were turned over to the Germans. The prisoners fixed the lock on their cell door so it would not close and escaped with the help of a friendly guard. The men broke up into small groups and moved south for eight months, heading toward the front lines. They received help from Italian Partisans and slept in caves, animal pens and huts, scrounging what food they could but were always hungry. Although the partisans offered weapons, the Americans carried only their handguns, afraid they would be shot as spies if captured with arms.

In Fort Wayne, Curdes’ parents had heard their son went missing in August 1943. They received letters from his comrades and commanding officers telling them what a wonderful soldier their son had been. Receiving no word other than that he was missing, his parents began to give up hope that their son was alive, believing he went down in the Mediterranean. On May 27, 1944, Curdes heard the noise of battle from a goat pen he had been sleeping in. He made his way toward the firing and met a British officer and scouts of the British 8th Army who directed him off the front line. On June 9, 1944 word reached his parents that he was safe. By June 15, Louis Curdes was back in America. He sent his mother a bouquet of roses announcing he was home. When his father asked him on the phone what his previous nine months had been like Curdes said “I can’t talk about that Dad. Let’s just say it was a grand vacation”.

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The Bad Angel with kill German, Japanese and American kill markings

Curdes returned to Fort Wayne on June 16th, and his reunion with his parents was mobbed by reporters. His every action made headlines in the town, from his first cup of American coffee to his first fishing trip back home with his dad. The mayor could not organize a parade for him but the neighborhood kids made a P-38 for him with cheese boxes for engines and a barrel for the fuselage. They put Curdes in it and pulled him down Florida Drive in Fort Wayne.

While he enjoyed his leave, Curdes knew there was still a war going on. He volunteered for combat duty in the Pacific and was assigned to the 4th Fighter Squadron, 3rd Air Commando flying P-51 Mustangs in the Philippines. He named his airplane “Bad Angel”.

On February 10, 1945, Captain Louis Curdes took off from Mangaldan Airfield in the Philippines leading a flight of four P-51s on a reconnaissance mission to the tip of Taiwan looking for a Japanese airfield. They found nothing in Taiwan but decided to fly over Batan Island, one of the northernmost Philippine islands close to Taiwan. The four P-51’s broke up into pairs. Curdes and his wingman, Lieutenant Schmidtke flew over the northern half, while the other two pilots, Lieutenants Scalley and La Croix looked over the southern part of the island. The northern half had nothing of interest but Lt. Scalley called on the radio that they found something and requested immediate assistance. The flight of four found themselves engaged in fighters and anti-aircraft fire.

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Louis Curdes in the cockpit of his P-51 Mustang

The four Mustangs claimed 2 Japanese planes in the air and 3 more on the ground. Japanese Anti-aircraft fire was intense. Lieutenant La Croix was hit over the target and bailed out into the sea. Curdes ordered Lieutenant Scalley to fly back to Mangaldan to see if there was a PBY Catalina available for rescue. He then told Lieutenant Schmidtke to fly to 15,000 feet and give out a mayday and cover him.

Curdes made another strafing run on the Japanese airfield to discourage them from going after La Croix in the water.

In the distance he saw an American C-47 transport plane trying to land on the Japanese airfield. At first Curdes thought it was a Japanese copy of the C-47 but when he got close to it he could see it had American markings. Curdes tried to contact the plane on the radio, he shot across its nose and flew in front of it to ruin its landing approach, but nothing he did made the C-47 change course. Curdes did not want to see an American plane land on a Japanese field, especially one that had just been attacked. Curdes lined his P-51 behind the C-47 and carefully shot out both of its engines forcing the pilot to ditch in the sea. The C-47 landed close to La Croix in the water, and Curdes saw twelve people climbing into a raft. He saw they were all Americans and that two women were with them. Curdes dropped a note from 50 feet saying “For God’s sake, keep away from the shore. Japs there”. La Croix paddled over to the survivors and tied their rafts together. As night approached with no rescue airplane in sight, Curdes decided the people in the water would be safe until daylight and returned to base.

Before daybreak the next day, Curdes and his wingman took off and returned to the rafts. They guarded them from the air until a PBY Catalina arrived. Curdes learned that the C-47 pilot had gotten lost in bad weather. The pilot’s radio had gone out and his fuel gauge was empty when he spotted the airfield on Batan Island. When looking over the list of survivors from the C-47, Curdes was shocked to see the name of a nurse he had a date with in Lingayen the night before he shot down the C-47. He exclaimed “Jeepers, seven 109’s and a Macchi in North Africa, one Japanese and one Yank in the Pacific and to top it, I have to go and shoot down the girlfriend”.

For shooting down an American C-47, Captain Louis Curdes was awarded his second Distinguished Flying Cross. He became one of three American pilots credited with shooting down an enemy plane from three Axis nations and the only American decorated for shooting down an American plane. He later married the nurse and can also claim to be only pilot to have shot down his girlfriend and future wife in aerial combat.

After the war, Louis Curdes stayed in the Air Force until 1963. He returned to Indiana and became a builder and developer.

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