Lieutenant Colonel Robert Samuel Johnson (February 21, 1920 – December 27, 1998)
His flight leader convinced that he was playing lone wolf, Johnson had mentioned to a fellow pilot “I’m getting sick of being low man on the colonel’s totem pole. Every time we get into a scrap with the Jerries, it seems I do the wrong thing and end up coming home alone. Well boy, not today. I’m going to stick with Blue Flight all the way through. I swear that if I separate from the flight, it won’t be voluntary. The Krauts are going to have to shoot me out of formation.”
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This account typed, directly from his book “Thunderbolt”
More than fifteen years have passed since I flew that mission. Fifteen years since the most critical moments of my life, eternal seconds of flight, of roaring guns and searing flame, , the horrifying sound of cannon shells and bullets flashing, seeking — me. A tumbling stream of emotions, exultation, pain and despair, the grip of terror and Death anxious and expectant. Fifteen years past, and yet every moment is still alive, still painted vividly in my mind. It is easy, so easy, to turn back the years to that warm and sunny morning at Manston…
… into the Manston briefing hut, walls clouded with maps and charts, with recognition sheets and colored symbols, the travel posters of a fighter group. This morning, especially I am attentive. The words are the same as other briefings, and yet they are different. Details are vital; details of what to expect can save your life, prepare you for the worst: “…to be a maximum effort…expect heavy and determined opposition.” More words on clouds and winds aloft and rendezvous points with the Big Friends: “…protect the bombers at all costs.” The latest intelligence reports on escape and evasion tactics, on connecting the underground, how to wiggle past tens of thousands of Nazi troops, how to work your way down to Spain. If you’re shot down, and if you remain alive. No one wants or expects to be shot down, to tumble unsuspectingly before a Focke-Wulf’s or a Messerschmitt’s guns. But we all check, carefully, our maps, chart courses, vital data. our knives and guns and escape kits.
This isn’t an ordinary mission. Too much preparation. Too much careful planning. Details usually accepted as a matter of routine are studied exhaustively; nothing is taken for granted. The Thunderbolts roar sweetly, alive and tense. Seemingly as taut as their pilots for a mission everyone knows is our most important to date. There is a feeling in the air, a tensness that crackles invisibly among the pilots, that is transferred to our ground crews. There’s little joking this morning; the usual levity is replaced by somber reflections.
We are tense, excited, thinking of the imminent battle miles above the ground when the Germans race after the bombers. No doubt today of a maximum interception. The black crossed planes will be out in force, and as always flown by skillful and courageous pilots, flying fighter planes the match of those anywhere in the world. I love the Thunderbolt, glory in its power and strength, in its incredible, unsurpassed durability and its tremendous armament — but I am not so foolish as to lack a keen appreciation of the flashing speed an agility of the opposition. And they are rugged, those boys out there!
I run through the fighter’s cockpit check almost by instinct, my eyes and hands and feet moving in response to habit drilled into me. I forget nothing, miss nothing, but it is almost rote. I cannot keep my mind off the mission. I know that, more so than on previous ramrods, I am excited and tense. I wonder what will happen today, and I wonder if I will come home. That quivery feeling. Scared? I try to be honest with myself, and yet I’m not sure! Can I distinguish between the slight tremors of excitement and those of fright? I’m not certain; yet, I am aware, as are the other pilots, that this is the ultimate test. We have been warned so many times and with such emphasis of the opposition today that we are expecting half of the Luftwaffe to scream at us. There is no question that we must fly our best—or many of us will not come home today.
This quiver of excitement, the anticipation, I had experienced before. The trembling of knees, the undue clarity of vision and of mind. I remember back even further into the years: clad in boxing trunks, taped fists clenched and taut within the leather gloves, waiting the eternity of seconds before the bell rings, waiting to shuffle forward, to have my head rocked back by a stinging jab, waiting for the fear to leave me, for the opponent’s blow to wash my fear away, until I could rush into him, swinging, alive with the moments of this fight. I can never explain these feelings better. I knew them more intimately after this mission, and with every succeeding flight against the Luftwaffe, I failed to escape these moments of fear. To deny these feelings, even to myself, would be a lie. Fear was with me as it was with the other men. And it was healthy, a provider of respect and caution, not to be denied, but to be welded into what is described as a fighter pilot’s “killer instinct.” Fear could also be a friend; it speeded up my reactions.
Thunderbolts moving out from the perimeter, propellers drenched in sun, grass flattened by airblast. Pilots leaning out of their cockpits to see beyond those giant engines, weaving their way along, moving into position for takeoff. Orders from the tower, brakes released, throttle forward, go! Hard on the rudder to counteract torque, the needle climbs around, back pressure on the stick. Grass and trees fall away magically beneath my wheels, I work the controls, hydraulics surge in tubes, the gear folds up and inward and tucks away into the Thunderbolt’s broad wings.
Left turn, stick and rudder working smoothly, tilting the earth sharply, back on the stick, climb out, and meet in the air. Forty-eight Thunderbolts in formation, sliding and wheeling into neat and precise patterns. No one aborts, no engine fails, the pilot of the forty-ninth Thunderbolt, our standby, mutters unhappily and peels off to return to Horsham St. Faith. We lead today; the 61st Fighter Squadron holds the low and leading position for this mission. I swivel my head. High to my left, bunched together, the sixteen fighters of the 63rd labor for altitude. To my right, slightly higher than my own formation, wings the 62nd. I am Blue 4 in Blue Flight, stuck on the end slot. My element leader is to my left; sliding smoothly through the air to his left ride our flight leader and his wingman.
It is a tight, well drilled team, Each flight of four Thunderbolts holds tight formation, four finger tips greasing through the air. Manston falls far behind as the forty-eight fighters drone southward, all climbing at an indicated 170 miles per hour. Our throttles are held back allowing the Thunderbolts to ascend in a shallow, fuel saving climb.
Dover below, the cliffs melting into the channel waters. A day of crystal clarity, scattered clouds far below us, miles between the puffy white. There is absolutely no limit to visibility; the earth stretches away forever and forever. A strange world—made for solitary flight, and yet made also, it seems, of three-dimensional movement, the gliding through space of forty-eight fighters, each alone, each linked also by the unseen thread of metallic radio voices.
Over the Channel, only a mile or so off the French coast. Still climbing, the altimeter winding around slowly, clocking off the hundreds, the thousands, past ten thousand, reaching for twenty. The coastline drifts by, quiet and almost sleepy in the rich sun, unrevealing of gun batteries and listening posts, and radar scanners already reporting our of our position, number, height and course, data flashed back to German antiaircraft batteries, to fighter fields, to command posts. From this altitude, France slumbers, beautiful and green.
Le Treport beneath our left wings, the mouth of the Seine River clear and sharp. “Blue flight, stay sharp. Nine zero degrees. Let’s go.” Blue flight wheels, banks and turns in unison with its squadron, the 61st matching flawlessly the wheeling of its two sister squadrons. Below the formation, the Seine River, occupied territory.
“Open up, Blue Flight.” Our radio call, orders to the other flights. Move out, separate into combat formation. Pilots work stick and rudder; the Thunderbolts ease away from one another. Now Blue Flight is in its combat position, each Thunderbolt 200 yards apart. Between each flight of four fighters stretches a space of 500 yards and, even further out, holding a distance of 1,500 yards, ride the squadrons. Almost constantly I turn turn and look, turn and look, watching the position of my own planes, seeking out strange black specks in the sky, alert for the plunging Focke-Wulfs or Messerschmitts.
Marching in precision, the 63rd Squadron flies to the north, very high, in down-sun position. I turn my head, and see the 62nd Squadron, to our south, and slightly above our own altitude. Other things to check as I divert my attention to the cockpit. Gun switch “On.” Gunsight “On.” Check the chute harness. Shoulder and leg strapstight, catches secure, the harness fastened. Don’t make it easy for the Jerries—check the “elephant trunk.” I inspect the oxygen tube, start ot count: “3 – 6 – 9 – 12 – 15 – 18 – 21 – 24 – 27 – 30.” Oxygen okay; the count by threes to thirty clear and sharp, no faltering. Escape kit secured. If — that big “if” —I go down, I want to be sure of my equipment, my procedures, my position. Its a long walk through France and Spain, If luck holds.
The Thunderbolts move into the skies of Europe. A moment to myself. Alone, yet not alone, I pray. If He allows, a moment of thanks on the way home. There won’t be time to pray once the black-crossed fighters rush in.
Keep looking, keep looking! It’s that moment of carelessness, the second of not paying attention, when the fighters bounce. Occasionally I glance ahead, but I am in the end slot, exposed in the Blue 4 position. At all times my head swivels, my eyes scanning every inch of the sky from my right wingtip, rearward, and above, over my canopy, and down. The silk scarf around my neck isn’t a hotrock decoration; without the silk to protect my skin, my neck by now would be raw and bleeding from rubbing against the wool collar of my shirt.
Out of the corner of my eye—a speck. There, far to the the right! I catch my heart with my teeth, swallow, snap my head to the right. I squint, study the sky. A speck of oil on the windshield, not a fighter. Gratefully, heart drops back where it belongs.
Fifteen miles inland, the Thunderbolt phalanx due north of Rouen, still over the sparkling Seine. My head continues to swivel, my roving gaze stops short as I notice a formation of sixteen fighters, directly behind and slightly above us. They’re coming in fast, flying a duplicate of our own formation. Thunderbolts? I look to the left; the sixteen fighters of the 63rd Squadron are rock steady. To the right, there; the sixteen fighters of the 62nd Squadron. Who the hell are these other people. For several seconds I stare at their silhouettes—they’re Focke-Wulfs!
Slow, Johnson, take it slow, and be clear. I press the radio mike button on the throttle, and make an effort to speak slowly and distinctly. “Sixteen bandits, six o’clock, coming in fast, this is Keyworth Blue 4 Over.” No one replies, no one makes a move. The Thunderbolts drone on, utterly oblivious of the sixteen fighters streaking in. Am I the only man in the Group who sees these planes? I keep my eyes glued to the fighters, increasing in size with every second, trailing thin streaks of black exhaust smoke as they rush toward us under full power.
“Sixteen bandits, six o’clock, coming in fast—this is Keyworth Blue 4—Over!” Now I see the enemy fighters clearly—Focke-Wulfs still closing the gap. Again I call in—I’m nearly frantic now. My entire body seems to quiver. I’m shaking; I want to rip the Thunderbolt around and tear directly into the teeth of the German formation. It’s the only thing to do; break into them. For a moment, I lift the P-47 up on one wing and start the turn—no dammit! I swore I wouldn’t break formation; I would only act only on orders and not on my own. I jab down again on the button, this time fairly shouting the warning of enemy fighters.
What the hell’s the matter with them? I glance quickly at the other Thunderbolts, expecting the leaders big fighter to swing around and meet the attack. The P-47 drones on, unconcerned, her pilot apparently oblivious to the enemy. My finger goes down on the button and I call, again: Sixteen bandits, six o’clock, coming in f—–“
A terrific explosion! A split second later, another. And yet another! Crashing thundering sounds. WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! One after another as an avalanche smashing into my fighter, heavy boulders hurtling out of nowhere and plunging with devastating force into the airplane. A blinding flash. Before my eyes, the canopy glass erupts in an explosion, dissolves in a gleaming shower. Tiny particles of glass rip through the air. The Thunderbolt shudders through her length, bucks wildly as explosions flip her out of control. Still the boulders rain against the fighter, a continuing series of crashing explosions, each roaring, each terrifying. My first instinct is to bail out; I have a frantic urge to leave the airplane.
Concussion smashes my ears, loud, pounding; the blasts dig into my brain. A new sound now, barely noticed over the crashing explosions. A sound of hail, rapid, light, unceasing. Thirty-caliber bullets, pouring in a stream against and into the Thunderbolt. Barely noticed as they tear through metal, flash brilliantly as tracers. The Thunderbolt goes berserk, jarring heavily every time another 20-mm. cannon shell shears metal, tears open the skin, races inside, and explodes with steel ripping force.
Each explosion is a personel blow, a fist thudding into my body. My head rings, my muscles protest as the explosions snap my body into the restraining straps, whip my head back against the rest. I am through! This is it! I’m absolutely helpless, at the mercy of the fighters pouring fire and steel into the Thunderbolt. Squeezed back in my seat against the armor plating—my head snaps right and left as I see the disintegration of my ’47. A blow spins my head to the left as a bullet creases my nose. Behind me I can feel the steel being flayed apart by the unending rain of cannon shells.
I notice no pain. I have only a frantic feeling—an explosive urge to get out!
I am not frightened; I am way beyond any such gentle emotion. I am terrified, clutched in a constricting terror that engulfs me. without conscious volition my finger stabs down the radio button and I hear a voice, loud and piercing, screaming, “MAYDAY! MAYDAY! MAYDAY!” The words blur into a continuous stream. The voice goes on and on, shouting the distress call, and not until I have shrieked for help six times or more do I recognize my own voice.
I have no time to think, almost no time to act. Moving by sheer force of habit, by practice become instinct, my hands fly over my body. Without conscious thought, without even realizing what I am doing, I wriggle free of the shoulder harness and jerk open the seat belt.
Another explosion. A hand smashes me against the side of the cockpit; for a moment acceleration pins me helplessly. The Thunderbolt breaks away completely from my control. Earth and sky whirl crazily. I’m suddenly aware that the fighter has been thrown nose down, plunging out of control. The smashing explosions, the staccato beating of the bullets, blurs into a continuous din. A sudden lunge, the fighter snaps to the right, nose almost vertical. The Thunderbolt’s wild motions flip me back and forth in the cockpit…
Fire! A gleaming tongue of flame licks my forehead. It flickers, disappears. Instantly it is here again, this time a searing fire sheet, erupting into the cockpit. The fire dances and swirls, disappears within a thick, choking cloud of smoke. Intense, blinding, sucked through the air shattered canopy. The draft is terror. The draft of air is Death, carrying the fire from the bottom of the cockpit, over me, crackling before my face, leaping up and out through the smashed canopy.
The terror is eternity. Burn to death!
I grab the canopy bar, gasping for breath, jerk it back with maniacal strength. The canopy jerks open, slides back six inches, and jams.
Trapped! The fire blossoms, roars ominously. Frantic, I reach up with both hands, pulling with every bit of strength I can command. The canopy won’t budge.
Realization. The fighter burning. Flames and smoke in the cockpit. Oxygen flow cut off. Out of control, plunging. Fighters behind. Helpless.
New sounds. Grinding, rumbling noises. In front of me, the engine; maybe it’s on fire!
I can’t see. I rub my eyes. No good. Then I notice the oil, spraying out from the damaged engine, a sheet of oil robbing me of my vision. I look to the side, barely able to look out.
Great, dark shapes. Reeling, rushing past me. No! The Thunderbolt plunges, flips crazily earthward. The shapes —the bombers! The bomber formations, unable to evade my hurtling fighter. How did I miss them? The shapes disappear as the Thunderbolt, trailing flame and smoke, tumbles through the bombers, escaping total disaster by scant feet. Maybe less!
I try, oh God, how I try! Both feet against the instrument panel, brace myself, grasp the canopy bar with both hands. Pull—pull harder! Useless. It won’t budge.
Still falling. Got to pull out of the dive. I drop my hands to the stick, my feet to the rudders. Left rudder to level the wings, back pressure on the stick to bring her out of the dive. There is still wind bursting with explosive force through the shattered canopy, but it is less demoniacal with the fighter level, flying at less speed.
Still the flame. Now the fire touches, sears. I have become snared in a trap hurtling through space, a trap of vicious flames and choking smoke! I release the controls. Feet firmly against the instruments, both hands grasping the canopy bar. It won’t move. Pull harder!
The Thunderbolt rears wildly, engine thumping. Smoke inside, oil spewing from the battered engine, a spray whipping back, almost blinding me to the outside world. It doesn’t matter. The world is nothingness. only space, forever and ever down to the earth below. Up here, fire, smoke.
I’ve got to get out! Terror and choking increases, becomes frenzied desperation. Several times I jerk the Thunderbolt from her careening drops toward the earth, several more times I kick against the panel, pull with both hands. The canopy will not move. Six inches. Not a fraction more. I can’t get out!
A miracle. Somehow, incredibly, flame disappears. The fire… the fire’s out! Smoke boils into the cockpit, swirls around before it answers the shrieking call of wind through the shattered glass. But there is no flame to knife into flesh, no flame… Settle down! Think! I’m still alive!
The terror ebbs, then vanishes. At one moment, I am beset with fear and frenzy, with the uncontrollable urge to hurl my body through the restraining metal, anything just to escape the fire. Terror grips me, chokes my breathing and thinking and, in an instant, a moment of wonder, it is banished. I no longer think of other aircraft—enemy or friendly. My mind races over my predicament, what I must do. I begin to relax.
The cessation of struggle, physically and within the mind, is so incredibly absolute that for long seconds I ponder. I do not comprehend this amazing self-control. It may be simply that I am overwhelmed by the miracle of still being alive. Perhaps it is the loss of oxygen at five miles above the earth. The precious seconds of relief flee all to quickly, I must still get out of the stricken airplane if I am to live.
Feet on the instrument panel, hands on the bar. Pull. I pull with all my strength until I am fairly blue in the face. I feel my muscles knotting with the strength of desperation, my body quivers with the effort. Not even this renewed struggle avails me. Cannon shells have burst against the canopy, twisted and curled metal.
The fighter heels sickeningly over on her side, skids through the air, flips for earth. I barely pay attention to the controls; my feet and hands move almost of their own accord, coordinating smoothly, easing the airplane from her plunge. Out of the dive again, the desire to survive becoming more intense.
I must get out. I hunch up in the cockpit, desperation once again rising about me like a flood. The canopy, the canopy. Life or death embedded within that blackened, twisted metal. C’mon, you! I hunch my shoulder, lunge at the metal. Again, and again. Hard blows that hurt. Steel slams into my shoulder, hard, unyielding, I cry out in frustration, a wordless profanity. My hands ball into fists and I beat at the canopy, throwing punches, hard, strong blows. But I am not in the ring, not striking at flesh and bone. The steel mocks me, unyielding, triumphant. I sit back for a moment, level the P-47 and wonder.
There is another way out. The canopy is shattered, atop me, to both sides. I stand up in the seat, poke my head and shoulders through the broken canopy. I hardly notice the heavy force of the wind and cold. I ignore it. My shoulders are through, I stand to my waist—I can get out!
Despair floods my mind. The parachute snags against the ripped canopy. it can’t clear; there’s not enough space between the shattered cockpit for both my body and the chute. I’m not going without it! I crawl back to the seat, right the spiraling airplane, and think.
All through the struggle to escape the fighter, I have been talking to myself. Over, and over again I have been repeating “You can get out, you can. If you have to, you can get out!” Again and again the words formed, until reality ruled. And after each attempt: “You just must not have to.”
I settle back in the seat, the terror and desperation vanished, caught by the wind shrieking through the cockpit, whisked away and scattered forever. I relax, a deliberate move to enable me to think clearly, to study my problems and seek the solutions. My mind is clear, my thoughts spinning through my brain. I think of everything, a torrent of thoughts that refuse to be clouded, thoughts of everything imaginable.
I am absolutely unconcerned at the moment about enemy aircraft. I know the sky about me is filled with the black-crossed fighters, with pilots eager to find so helpless a target as a crippled Thunderbolt, trailing a greasy plume of smoke as it struggles through the sky, descending. There is no fear of death or of capture. The terror and desperation which so recently assailed me have been born of fire, of the horror of being burned alive. Now the fire is gone, the terror flung away with its disappearance. Solve the problems, Johnson, find the answers, You can’t bail out.
A sound of danger snaps me back to full awareness. The engine is running very rough. Any moment, it seems, the giant power plant will tear itself free of its mounts to tumble through space, trapping me in an airplane unbalanced and uncontrollable. I turn my attention fully to flying, realizing that the Thunderbolt is badly crippled, almost on the verge of falling out of my control. Oil still bursts from the holes and tears in the cowling, a thin spray smearing itself against the windscreen, making vision forward almost impossible.
I cannot get out; I must ride this potential bomb to the very ground. My left hand moves almost automatically, easing the throttle back, a move made to keep the engine from exploding. Again—good fortune! The grinding, throbbing noise subsides; much smoother now. My chances are getting better.
I keep thinking of all the intelligence lectures we have sat through, buttocks sore on benches, about how to avoid capture, how to escape to Spain, to return to England. Intelligence officers, reading reports, after a while dull with repetition. Then the actual escapees, pilots who bailed out or crashed, who hid and ran and survived by their wits, who did walk out of France, aided by the underground to reach Spain and eventually, to return to England. It could be done; it had been done. I could do it as well as any. My mind wanders; strangely, I seem to be looking forward to the challenge. It is a thought wholly ridiculous; to anticipate and savor the struggle to escape a land swarming with quick fingered troops.
One entire B-17 crew had been shot down and lost not a moment in hustling their way out through France and into Spain. In just three weeks from the moment they bailed out of their burning Fortress and fell into space, they were in England. A record. I can do that—three weeks and I’ll be back. Each time I dwell on the matter my mind tricks me, returns to me pictures of Barbara and my family.
What am I doing! I have been flying toward England, an instinctive move to fly toward the Channel. I remember words, lectures,. “If you’re going down, if you can’t make the Channel, turn south. The coast is thick with Germans, and you won’t have a chance if you go down there. Head south, south..”
The words flash by in my mind. Obediently, I work the controls, change my course. I look down. Twenty thousand feet to the earth. There— I can see them. They’re so clear and sharp. In my oxygen-starved brain, I see the Germans. They are like ants, hordes of ants, each carrying a gun and a sharp, glittering bayonet. For twenty miles inland, the horde is thick, impenetrable, inescapable, I can’t land there; I can see the German soldiers.
The Thunderbolt turns, heads for Paris. I will fly over the sprawling city, continue flying south, try to get as close as possible to the Spanish border.
This means a crash landing, evasion, escape. I think about procedures once I am on the ground, the Thunderbolt stopped. My plans are clear—I’ll belly the crippled Thunderbolt in, slide the fighter wheels up along an open field. I will land as far south in France as the crippled airplane will take me in the continuing descent. I plan to make the walk through Spain as short as possible, to get out quickly. I will not be captured. I’ll evade them; others have—I will! The thought races through my mind; it stays with me through all the moments of considering the crash, the evasion, the escape back to England.
There, clipped to the right side of the cockpit near my knee, an incendiary grenade. Check it! Procedure! Words and method are habit by now. I hold the bomb, grip it tightly. This is the way you do it. The moment the ship stops its sliding across the ground… get out. Fling the bomb into the cockpit. Turn the fighter into flames and smoke and ashes.
My mind begins to wander; there is still clarity, but now there is less concentration. The thoughts flit in and out, they appear and flee of their own volition. One instant I think of escape procedures, then my mind dwells on the pilots after they return to Manston. I picture them in my mind, talking about my missing airplane, listing me as missing, presumed dead, victim of the sudden bounce by the sixteen determined German fliers. I think about Dick Allison, victim of a fatal crash caused by vertigo. Dick was married, and my thoughts hover about his wife. I remember her, pretty, wonderful; I think of her holding their newborn child. I think of her, never again seeing Dick; the child never to know the father.
I cannot escape the thoughts. Dick’s face looms before me, a face dissolving into a Thunderbolt spinning through clouds, a gout of flame, mushrooming smoke. His widow, the child. Then it disappears, the pictures are gone. Barbara. Thoughts only of her. That last sight of my wife, tearful, trying so bravely to smile as the train carried her away. How many months since I’ve seen Barbara? Seen home? Barbara back home, at Lawton, learning that I was missing. She knew enough of fighters, knew enough to realize the odds were that I would not survive.
In brief seconds the pictures flash into being, a kaleidoscope of people and thoughts and emotions. a world marching in accelerated time before my vision. I can’t do this to them; I can’t go down. I’ve got to get back!
My mind reels drunkenly, for several moments I think of the Thunderbolt burning while I flee. I do not realize the truth. Hypoxia is upon me. My body and brain clamor for oxygen; desire, covet the life-giving substance. The hypoxia becomes worse as I stagger through the air, thin and cold at 19,000 feet. The symptoms are drunkenness, a hypoxic intoxication, giddy in its effects, lethal if it is sustained. And yet. through this dangerous moment, I plan with all seriousness my crash landing, plan to shed the parachute and escape throuth the shattered canopy.
Barbara. My folks. Again I think of them. Again their presence invades the fog of hypoxia, struggles to the fore. Visions of loved ones; my concern for them forcing upward through the mists, the false sense of confidence. Again the thoughts are safety, are mental clarity, are the key to survival. The thoughts of their pain, their anguish. Sharp, clear. I can’t go down.
My head is clearing. The fog is breaking up, dissolving. All this time I have been convinced that the fighter is incapable of flight, that it can only glide. I have been flying in a shallow glide, descending gently, losing altitude, at 170 miles per hour. Go for the Channel. Fly over the water, far enough from the French coast to avoid detection by the Germans. Fly as close as possible to England, ditch the ship in the water, crawl through the hole. Air-Sea Rescue will pick me up, will race out to the scene of the ditching in boats or in planes, to rescue me, bring me back to England. Barbara and the folks may never even know that I’ve been in trouble.
Stick and rudder, still descending gently. The fighter wheels around in a graceful turn, almost ludicrous for a smoking, badly shot up machine. But the Thunderbolt is still true, still responsive. She obeys my commands. I head for England, a goal, a place to fly, a home to return to.
I stare at the instrument panel. A shambles. Smashed glass, many of the instruments broken. The Thunderbolt descends, nose slightly down, settling gradually, at about 170 miles per hour. I have no airspeed indicator, but I know this fighter, know her feel.
My mask seems to choke me. Strapped to my face, it had been, unknown to me, useless, unable to supply oxygen from a scource shot away. I bank the fighter, stare down. At a height I estimate to be ten thousand feet, I unhook the mask, suck deeply the good clean air, air now richer with oxygen, oxygen to clear my head, to return to me my full senses.
With the newly returned clarity, comes soberness, a critical evaluation of my predicament. I am in trouble, in serious, dangerous difficulty. Not until this moment do I realize that I have been flying almost blinded. My eyes burn, a stinging sensation that increases every moment in pain.
I touch my face with my hands. No goggles, and memory comes to me. Yesterday I broke a lens, I turned the goggles in for repair. This morning I took off on the only combat mission I ever flew or was to fly without goggles. It was a foolish move, and now, over occupied France, in a crippled, smoking fighter, I am paying the penalty for my own stupidity.
In the opening moments of attack, a 20mm. cannon shell had ripped through the left side of the cockpit, exploded with a deafening roar near my left hand, and wreaked havoc with the hydraulic system. The blast sheared the flap handle and severed the hydraulic lines. Since that moment, the fluid had poured into the cockpit. Then several more shells exploded, blasted apart the canopy. Wind entered at tremendous speed and, without respite, whipped the fluid into a fine stinging spray.
Now the wind continues its devastating work. the fluid sprays into my eyes, burning and stinging. I fail to realize during the flight through thin air the effect on my eyes of the fluid.
My hand raises to my face, and I flinch. The pain is real, the source is evident. My eyes are swollen, puffed. Around them the skin is raised, almost as if I have been beaten with fists. It’s hard to see. Not until now, not until this moment, do I realize that I am seeing through slits, that if my face swells any more, the skin will close over my eyes.
The moment this happens, I am finished. Half the time I fly with my eyes closed, feeling out the struggling crippled fighter. It is now that my sense of balance, my sense of flight, comes to my aid. I can feel the Thunderbolt when she begins to skid, to slip through the air. I can feel a wing lowering, feel the sudden change of wind draft in the cockpit. I listen carefully, strain with eyes closed to note labor in the engine, to hear the increase in propeller revolutions, in engine tone, when the nose drops. This is how I fly, half blinded, eyes burning.
When I open my eyes to see, I must stick my head through the hole in the cockpit in order to look ahead. For the windscreen is obscured by oil. I do this several times. The wind stabs my eyes with ice picks, and the pain soars.
My attempts to clean my face, to rub away the fluid from my eyes, are pitifully hopeless. I pull a handkerchief from a pocket, wipe at my burning eyes. The first time I find relief. But the cockpit is filled with spray. My hands, my face, my clothes, are bathed, soaked in hydraulic fluid. In a moment the handkerchief too is drenched. Each time I rub my eyes I rub blood from my nose and the fluid deeper into my skin, irritating the eyes.
And yet, incredibly, I am calm and resolved. A succession of miracles has kept me alive, and I am not about to fret anxiously when only calmness will continue my survival. The pain in my eyes is nothing to the pain I have felt; certainly nothing against the past few minutes. Each time I open my eyes to check my flight, I scan the entire sky. My head swivels, I stare through burning eyes all about me. I am over enemy territory, heavily defended country, alone, in a crippled, smoking airplane, half blind. I have no company, and I do not savor the sight of other aircraft. I wish only to be left alone, to continue my slow, plodding pace through the air. I’ve got to get as far out over that Channel as possible.
Again I look around. My head freezes, I stare. My heart again is in my throat. A fighter, alone. I am close to the Channel, so close, as I stare at the approaching machine. Slightly behind the Thunderbolt, closing in from four o’clock at about 8,000 feet, the fighter closes in. I squint my eyes, trying to make out details. The fighter slides still closer.
Never have I seen so beautiful an airplane. A rich dappled blue, from a dark, threatening thunderstorm, to a light sky blue. The cowling is a brilliant, gleaming yellow. Beautiful, and Death on the wing. A Focke-Wulf 190, one of Goering’s Boys on the prowl after the raging air battle from which I have been blasted, and slicing through the air—-at me. I stare at the airplane, noting the wax coating gleaming on the wings and body.
What can I do? I think of waving my handkerchief at him, then realize the absurdity of such a move. That’s silly! I’ll rock my wings. But what good will this do? I’m at a loss as to my next move—for I don’t dare to fight in the disabled Thunderbolt. I’ve got to get out over the Channel, continue my flight toward the water and a chance at safety, and survival.
I simply stare at the Focke-Wulf. My eyes follow the yellow nose as it closes the distance. The moment the nose swings on a line that points ahead of the Thunderbolt—-all hell will break loose. That can only be the German’s move to lead my fighter with his guns— the moment before he fires.
All I can do is sit and watch. Closer and closer slides the sleek fighter. I begin to fidget, waiting for the yellow flashes to appear from his guns and cannon. Nothing. The guns remain silent, dark. The Focke-Wulf nose is glued on a line to the Thunderbolt. Damn—I’ll bet he’s taking pictures of me! Rare photographs of a crippled American fighter completely at his mercy.
The yellow-and-blue fighter glides in, still closer. I wonder what he has in mind, even as the Focke-Wulf comes to within 50 yards away. I think of what I have always wanted to do, to close in to point-blank range, to stick my four right guns almost in his cockpit and the four left guns against his tail—and fire. That would really scatter him! And that’s just what this bastard wants to do—to me!
He’s too close. I shove the stick forward and to the right, swerving the Thunderbolt beneath the Focke-Wulf. I’ve got to get to the Channel; every move, every maneuver leads to that destination—the Channel water. As the fighter drops earthward, I bank and turn back to my left, heading directly out toward the coast. I glance up as the Focke-Wulf passes over me to my left, swings beautifully in an easy curve, and slides on my tail.
Thoughts race through my mind. I know he’s going to work me over, just the second he feels he is in perfect position. I can’t stop him, I can’t fight in the crippled Thunderbolt; I don’t even know if the airplane will stay together through any maneuvers. Every moment of flight since I was shot up has been in a long and gradual descent, a glide, easy enough even for a disabled airplane. But now… I can’t slug it out with this Focke-Wulf.
I look the Thunderbolt over. For the first time I realize just how severe a battering the airplane has sustained. The fighter is a flying wreck, a sieve. Let the bastard shoot! He can’t hurt me any more than I’ve been hurt!
I push back in the seat, hunching my shoulders, bringing my arms in close to my body. I pull the seat adjuster, dropping the seat to the full protection of the armor plate. And here I wait.
The German takes his time. He’s having a ball, with a helpless pigeon lined up before his guns. When will he shoot? C’mon, let’s have it! He waits. I don’t dare move away from the armor plating. The solid metal behind me is my only chance for life.
Pellets stinging against the wings, the fuselage, thudding into the armor plate. A steady, pelting rain of hailstones. And he’s not missing! The .30-caliber bullets pour out in a stream, a rain of lead splashing all over the Thunderbolt. And all I can do is sit there, crouched behind the armor plating, helpless, taking everything the Kraut has to dish out.
For several seconds the incredible turkey shoot continues, my Thunderbolt droning sluggishly through the air, a sitting duck for the Focke-Wulf. How the P-47 stays together is a mystery, for the bullets continue to pour into it.
I don’t move an inch. I sit, anger building up. The bulets tear metal, rip into spars, grinding away, chopping up the Thunderbolt. My nerves grate as if both hands hold a charge of electricity. Sharp jolts against my back. Less than an inch away, bullets crash against the armor.
To hell with this! My feet kick right and left on the rudder pedals, yawing the P-47 from side to side. The sudden movement slows the fighter to a crawl, and in that second the Focke-Wulf overruns me and bursts ahead.
My turn. I may be almost helpless, but there are bullets in the guns! Damn him—I can’t see the Focke-Wulf. I stick my head out of the window, wince from the pain of wind stabbing my swollen eyes. There the bastard is, banking away. I kick right rudder, skid the Thunderbolt, squeeze the trigger in anguish. Eight heavy guns roar; my ship shudders as steel spits through the air. The moment of firing is more gesture than battle, for I cannot use my sights, I can barely see. The bullets flash in his direction, but I hold no hope that the Focke-Wulf will falter.
It doesn’t. The sleek fighter circles lazily to the right, out of range. I watch him closely. Blue wings flash, the FW-190 swoops up, sweeps down in a wide turn. He’s boss of the situation, and I simply fly straight and level as the German fighter slides into a perfect, tight formation with me! This is ridiculous, but I’m happier with the Jerry playing tag off my wing than sitting behind me and blazing away at the Thunderbolt.
The Focke-Wulf inches in closer, gleaming blue wing sitting over mine, the top so close that I can almost lean out of the cockpit and touch the waxed metal. I stare across the scant feet separating our two planes. Our eyes lock, then his gaze travels over the Thunderbolt, studying the fighter from nose to tail. No need to wonder what he is thinking. He is amazed that my airplane still flies; I know his astonishment that I am in the air. Each time his gaze scans the Thunderbolt he shakes his head, mystified. For at such close range he can see the tears and holes, the blackened and scorched metal from the fire, the oily film covering the nose and windscreen, the shattered canopy.
The Kraut stares directly at me, and lifts his left hand. He waves, his eyes expressionless. A wing lifts, the Focke-Wulf slides away. A long held breath explodes from my lungs, and relief floods my mind. I watch the yellow-nosed fighter as he turns to fly away. But… He doesn’t! The German plane keeps turning… he’s on my tail again! “That son of a bitch!” I duck.
I cower again behind the armor plate. The Focke-Wulf is directly behind me, .30 caliber guns hammering. Still the bullets come, perfectly aimed. He doesn’t miss, not a single bullet misses. I know they don’t! Frantic, I kick rudder, jerk the heavy Thunderbolt from side to side, cutting my speed. The German waits for the maneuver; this time he’s not sucked in. He holds back as the P-47 skids from side to side, and then I see the yellow nose drawing closer to me.
He pulls alongside tight to the P-47. Perfect formation, one battered, shot up Thunderbolt and the gleaming new Focke-Wulf. By now we are down to 4000 feet, passing directly over Dieppe, our speed still 170 miles per hour. Over Dieppe! The realization makes me shudder, for below my wings lie the most intense antiaircraft concentrations along the entire coast.
They don’t fire! Of course! The Focke-Wulf pilot is saving my life! He doesn’t see Dieppe as a horror of flak. This is, to him, friendly territory, an arena over which to fly with impunity. Unknowingly, he gives me yet another lease on life, is the unwitting party to the succession of miracles which, through one cumulative disaster after the other, are keeping me alive. Even his presence, his attacks, are in a way miraculous. For the German has laced me over with his .30 caliber guns, and it is only the smile of fortune that he found me after his four heavy cannon had expended their explosive shells.
Water below… the Channel beneath my wings! Still in perfect formation, the dappled blue FW-190 glides slowly downward with me. Then we are at 3,000 feet. The coast two miles from me, and hope flares anew. There is a chance now, an excellent chance to make it into the Channel where I can be rescued! I stare at the German pilot. His left hand raises slowly to his forehead in an informal salute; he waves, and his fighter lifts a wing as he slides off to the right.
Relief, the gasp of pent-up breath. Oh no! Here he comes again! Nothing to do but crouch within that armor plating. The enemy fighter sits behind me, perfectly in the slot. He’s extra careful this time. A series of sharp bursts ripple from his guns. Again the hailstones pelting the tin roof, the bullets smashing into the fighter. Shuddering and helpless, the P-47 takes the punishment, absorbs the terrible beating. I have long given up hope of understanding why this machine continues to stay in the air. The German is whipsawing his bursts, kicking rudder as he fires. A stream of bullets swinging from left to right, a buzzsaw flinging bullets from one wingtip across the plane, into the armor plate, straight across. The firing stops.
Here he comes again. The yellow nose inching alongside, the gleaming Focke-Wulf. The German plot again slides into formation, undesired company in the sky. For several minutes he remains alongside, staring at the wreck I am flying. He shakes his head in wonder. Below my wings the Channel is only a thousand feet away. A blue wing lifts, snaps down. I watch the salute, the rocking of wings. The sleek fighter accelerates suddenly and turns, flying away in a long climbing turn back to the coast.
Free! England ahead, the Channel lifting to meet the crippled P-47. How far, how far can I drag the Thunderbolt with her smashed and laboring engine before she drops into the waves?
All this time I have been so tense that my hand gripped the throttle and held down the mike button, transmitting all the things I had called the Jerry pilot, as well as the gunfire and the smashing of bullets into the Thunderbolt. And again, an inadvertent move comes to my aid. The moment the Focke-Wulf disappears, I release the throttle knob and begin my preparations for ditching. My plan is to belly into the Channel, nose high, tail down. As the fighter slews to a stop in the water, I will crawl out through the shattered canopy, dragging my folded dinghy life raft with me. Then, inflate the raft, move away from the sinking plane, and pray that Air-Sea Rescue will find me before the Jerries do, or before I drift long enough to starve. I am ready for all this, calm and prepared for the impact into the water.
And then… a voice! The moment my finger lifts from the mike button, I hear a voice calling urgently. “Climb if you can, you’re getting very faint, climb if you can, you’re getting very faint!” It’s the Air-Sea Rescue radio—homing in on me and giving instructions. At this instant I realize that it is really true—I’m still alive! This rugged old ‘bolt, she’ll fly, she’ll bring me home yet!
I call back, exultation and laughter in my voice, nearly shouting “Okay, out there! I’ll try. I’ll do everything I can, but I’m not sure what I can do. I’m down to less than a thousand feet now.” And finally I discover that the battered and crippled Thunderbolt really can fly! I have been in a steady glide, convinced all this time the fighter is on the verge of falling out of control and now—only now—I discover that she’ll fly. It is too good to be true, and I shout with glee.
I ease back on the stick. The Thunderbolt answers at once, nose lifting, and hauls upward in a zoom climb. I hold the fighter with her nose high until the speed drops to just above stalling.
Now, level out. Hold it. increase speed to at least 170 miles per hour, back on the stick again. And climb! Again I repeat the maneuver, a crippled series of upward zooms, each bringing me higher and higher. Each zoom,—a terrific boost to my morale. Clouds above me, a scattered overcast at 5,000 feet. Just below the cloud deck, nose level, more speed, and back on the stick. She goes! The big fighter rears upward, into the clouds. Another leveling out, another zoom, and I’m on top. From less than 1,000 feet to more than 8,000! I’m shouting happily to myself, so cocky and confident and joyous that I’m nearly drunk from the sensation. Everything is wonderful! Nothing is going to stop me now! I nurse the fighter, baby the controls, and the crippled airplane responds, slices through the air, closer and closer to safety.
“Blue 4, Blue 4,” The voice is clearer, sharper. “We have you loud and clear, Blue 4. Steer three-four-five degrees, Blue 4, steer three-four-five degrees.”
“Hello, Control, hello Control, this is Blue 4. I can’t steer your heading. Most of my instruments are shot out. I have a general idea of my direction, but I cannot follow your exact heading. Direct me either left or right. Direct me either left or right. I will correct in this manner. Over.”
Mayday Control stays with me every moment, sending flight corrections. I think the Channel is only forty miles across, but I am far south, and long miles stretch ahead of me. At my laboring speed, it seems I’ll never get across the water. The minutes drag. How long can this airplane keep flying? I listen for any change in engine sound, for a faltering of the thunder ahead of me. But the engine sings true, maintaining power, and at 170 miles per hour we drone our way above the clouds, guided by an invisible voice through space, drawn inexorably toward home.
Time drags. Thirty minutes. Below the clouds, only the Channel. Thirty-five minutes, forty minutes. And then, a break in the clouds, the overcast becomes broken white cumulus and there… directly below me, the stark white cliffs of Dover! I’m too happy to keep radio silence, I whoop joyously, “Control, this is Blue 4. Those white cliffs sure look wonderful from up here!” No one can imagine just how wonderful they look!
The controller seems to share my joy. In the next several minutes he guides me unerringly through the clouds and steers me to the Hawkinge air base. I can’t find the field. The controller tells me I am directly over the base, but this doesn’t help. My eyes are too swollen, the field too well camouflaged. I pass directly over the hidden airfield, circle the field under the direction of the Mayday Controller, but cannot see a thing.
I check the fuel gauges: about a hundred gallons left. I call the Controller. “Hello, Mayday Control; hello, Mayday Control, this is Blue 4. I’m okay now. I’m going to fly to Manston. I’d like to land back at my outfit. Blue 4, Out.”
Immediately a call comes back, “Roger, Blue 4, If you’re sure you can make it, go to B Channel and give them a call. Mayday Control, Out” He signs off. I switch radio control, and call Manston. The field is less than forty miles away, almost in sight. The Thunderbolt chews up the miles, and soon I begin to descend, heading directly for the field.
“Hello, Manston Tower, this is Keyworth Blue 4, Pancake, Over.” The reply comes at once. “Hello, Blue 4, Hello, Blue 4, this is Manston, Pancake Number One, zero-six-zero, Over.”
“Hello, Manston. Blue 4 here. I’m shot up. I will have to make a belly landing. I do not know the condition of my landing gear. I have no hydraulics for flaps or brakes. Over.”
“Blue 4 from Manston. Make a wheels down landing if you possibly can. Repeat, make a wheels down landing if you possibly can. We are very crowded, and have other crippled airplanes coming in. Over.”
“Okay, Manston, from Blue 4. I’ll try it. Check my wheels as I come over the tower, I cannot bail out, repeat, I cannot bail out. I have no hydraulic system to pull the wheels back up, no brakes, no flaps. Over.”
I move the landing gear control to “Down” position. Fate still smiles on me. The wheels drop down, lock into position. With all the holes and gaping tears in the Thunderbolt, the wheels and tires have come through unscathed. I circle the field with my eyes almost closed, at 500 feet and less than 150 miles per hour.
This is it; now or never. I descend, turn into a long gliding turn for the runway so that I can see my point of touchdown. I cannot see through the oil covered windscreen. Carefully, carefully, not enough power for an emergency go-around. I fly every inch toward the runway, nursing the Thunderbolt down. Over the very end of the field, just above stalling speed, I chop the throttle, drop the heavy fighter to the grass. It is one of the best landings I have ever made!
The fighter rolls down the hill to the center of the Manston field. On the rough, grassy landing strip, I fight to keep her headed straight. Without flaps or brakes the big fighter rolls freely, barely losing speed. In the center of the field the strip slopes upward and the Thunderbolt charges along the grass. Ahead of me is a line of parked Spitfires and Typhoons; if I don’t stop I’m going to slam into them!
At the last moment I kick left rudder, letting the ship turn freely with the wind. The wing tilts, the heavy machine slews violently about, slides backward into a slot between two Typhoons almost as if I’d planned it that way.
The Thunderbolt has brought me home. Battered into a flying, wrecked cripple, she fought her way back, brought me home. It’s almost too much to believe! I feel a great wonder settling about me. My hand moves of its own accord. Engine off, switches off. My hands move over my body. Chute harness undone, straps free.
I crawl out through the hole in the canopy, dragging my parachute behind me. A grin stretches from ear to ear as I stand on the wing, stretch gratefully.
I jump to the ground, kneel down, and plant a great big kiss on Terra Firma. Oh, how good that solid earth feels!
The meat wagon is on hand, and the medics rush to me. I imagine I’m quite a sight, with blood from my nose smeared over my face, mixed with the hydraulic fluid. The doctor shakes his head in wonder, and I don’t blame him.
A .30 caliber bullet has nicked my nose. Splinters from 20mm. cannon shells are imbedded deeply in both hands. A bullet has shot away the wristwatch from my arm; only the strap and face rim remain. Burns streak the skin on my forehead. My eyes are swollen, burning, and the flesh starting to blister. And on my right thigh they discover two flesh wounds from .30 caliber bullets, that I hadn’t even known about.
They insist on taking me to the hospital at once. Not yet; I want to look over the Jug. And this airplane is not a pretty sight. My awe and respect for the fighter increases as I walk around the battered machine.
There are twenty-one gaping holes and jagged tears in the metal from 20mm. cannon shells. I’m still standing in one place when my count of the bullet holes reaches past a hundred; there’s no use even trying to add them all. The Thunderbolt is literally a sieve, holes through the wings, nose, fuselage and tail. Every square foot, it seems, is covered with holes. There are five holes in the propeller. Three 20mm. cannon shells burst against the armor plate, a scant inch away from my head. Five cannon shell holes in the right wing, four in the left wing. Two cannon shells blasted away the lower half of my rudder. One shell exploded in the cockpit, next to my left hand; this is the blast that ripped away the flap handle. More holes appear along the fuselage and in the tail. Behind the cockpit the metal is twisted and curled; this had jammed the canopy, trapping me inside.
The airplane had done her best. Needless to say, she would never fly again.
The doctors hustle me into the meat wagon, and roar off to the hospital for a thorough checkup and repair job. They look at me with misgivings, and cannot understand why I am not shaking and quivering. Not any more—all that is behind me! I’m the happiest man on earth, bubbling over with joy. I’m back, alive. A dozen times I thought I’d had it, thought the end had come. And now that I am back—with wounds and injuries that will heal quickly—-I’m too happy to react physically.
I feel like a man who had been strapped into the electric chair, condemned to die. The switch is thrown, the current surges. Then, miraculously, it stops. Again the switch closes, the current… Then another reprieve. Several more times the closing of the switch, the imminence of death, and the reprieve, the final freedom.
But not all are reprieved.
Captain Eby is gone. Captain Wetherbee is gone. My close friend, Lieutenant Barron is gone. Captain Dyer also is never to return. All four men were last seen in the vicinity of Forges. All four men, we learn later, are dead.
Foster comes home with a huge hole in his right wing. Johnny Eaves staggers back to Manston in a Thunderbolt shot to ribbons. Charley Clamp barely manages to reach the field in another battered fighter. Ralph Johnson makes it back with his plane shot up, his hydraulic system gone, his right wing ripped, and one elevator in ribbons. His ship is so badly crippled he cannot land. Zemke orders him to bail out, and Air-Sea Rescue fishes Ralph out of the Channel.
It is not a good day. The 56th Fighter Group loses four men killed. A fifth fighter is abandoned. Mine will never fly again. Many others are badly damaged. We claim only two kills.
Our debt grows larger; we intend to pay in full.