As the Germans were forced back toward and across the Rhine River, a higher proportion of our missions were armed recce and interdiction. We would bomb a train station or other target, and then fly a search pattern looking for trains or road traffic to shoot. The early morning and late afternoon flights were more productive because the enemy tried to run trains and truck convoys at night. We would catch them if they started out early or didn't make destination and hide before dawn. Bill Barns was being very considerate of me by scheduling my flights during bankers hours when things were dull, but after his own daybreak sorties he would be whistling and grinning all day long. I had to threaten to make up the schedules myself to get him to run me on a daybreak mission so I could keep my hand at train busting.
On a late afternoon flight I spotted (almost accidentally) a long camouflaged freight train in a densely wooded forest just west of the Rhine. We dive bombed it and it started some fires and explosions. After joining up, we made our line abreast passes (first four ships, then the second flight of four). It was obviously an ammo train because some explosions were so fierce that boxcars would stand on end. It was still smoking the next day as we passed.
Sometimes we would range as far south as Munich as the targets became scarce. Everybody wanted the missions to look for trains, but we still had to stay alert because on occasion one would turn out to be a flak train instead of a sitting duck.
One day we found a lonesome locomotive but he was not a sitting duck. He was a considerable distance from any town in wide open country south of Stuttgart and from his rate of speed and amount of steam he was putting out he had his throttle wide open. It was the only time I'd every seen a locomotive all alone without a single car. Thompson was leading the second flight and we still had our bombs. I asked him to take care of that little matter. His flight peeled off. The bombs from the last three ships were wasted -- Thompson's load landed right smack on that speeding locomotive. It was the best demonstration of bombing accuracy anyone could hope for.
Near the end of our stay at Luneville Col. Lydon decided to pull off a Group fighter sweep; twelve ships per squadron -- 36 P-47's. He made a wide circle of the base after takeoff while each Squadron joined up. The 316th was on top to the right with the middle Squadron on the left. I recall he asked us to tighten up the formation as we climbed to about 18000 feet on a course for Germany. It was an impressive sight. Approaching the Rhine river he ordered us to loosen up again to combat spacing. We did a sweep down into southern Germany to well south of Munich, encountering no enemy air activity at all. On the way back we caught a glimpse of an ME-262 taking off the Autobahn at a point about fifty or maybe seventy-five miles south of Stuttgart. The ME-262 disappeared in the clutter, but when a flight was sent down to investigate they discovered some wooden buildings in the forest beside the Autobahn. On a subsequent mission we investigated further and found a 262 assembly plant in the woods which we worked over thoroughly.
That great fighter sweep over half of Germany unopposed was good for our morale. But it is a good thing that ME-262 (jet) aircraft were not available to the Germans in larger numbers. We saw only a few of them in the air. They tried occasional hit-and-run attacks by ones and twos, and were so fast we would have been at a decided disadvantage if they had had enough force to work with.
Our last dog fight of consequence occurred just north of Mannheim. Eight of us were on a late morning recce mission and Col. Bud Horton, Deputy Group Commander, was flying as element leader in my lead flight. The 109's came in a steep dive out of the sun. Their leader had already started firing at Horton when I spotted him. I pulled up and rolled left to hose him, but missed because the #2 Jerry was bearing down on me and I had to continue to tighten my turn. Surprisingly, #2 stayed and tried to turn with me. Having come out of a dive his speed was faster than mine, so after almost a 360 degree turn I was pulling inside to let him have it when the ape chopped his throttle, leveled out and climbed to slow down. To avoid over-running him I had to chop throttle and slide to the right underneath him. I couldn't shoot him from that relative position but at least I had him in view, and he couldn't shoot me either unless I let him get behind me. To my amazement he slipped left and dropped down level and directly off my left wing, not more than 100 feet away -- I could see his wide open blue eyes. My eyes were bugging out too, I guess. Then I saw his wing slots open and realized he planned to stall me out. That P-47 Jug felt pretty heavy about that time. It was compared to an ME-109.
In less time then it takes to tell the story, I dropped half flaps and began a turn toward him, figuring I'd better shoot my way through him than stall out. Then he popped full throttle. I rammed full throttle, knowing I had him if I could get the flaps up, drop the nose slightly to help acceleration, then pull up on target before he got out of range. It worked perfectly, but as I opened fire two other guys, one from each side and above opened fire simultaneously. The three of us literally blew him away. With that concentration of fire, he exploded like fireworks. I was glad for the help, but it meant I had only one-third of a kill.
Our top flight chased and caught another 109 -- that made two. Six others were circling high overhead as we began to re-form, but made no further attacks. We found everybody in short order except Col. Horton. Finally, he answered. He was below 5000 feet with a vibrating engine and having trouble gaining altitude. We dropped down to pick him up and with the top flight covering us headed for home. The Jerries did likewise.
There was great excitement on landing because Ops had amplified our radio chatter and half the guys on the line had gathered around to listen and welcome us back. George Duwe, Squadron Exec, wanted to know who had let go with the Rebel Yell -- as if he didn't already know.
I walked over to Col. Horton's airplane. He had a hole in each wing opposite the cockpit and a neat 20 MM hole through one of his prop blades near the tip. The hole in the prop was the cause of the vibration problem. That was too close for comfort!
The name of the game for a fighter bomber outfit primarily engaged in interdiction and close support of the ground forces is to move as the ground troops move up, to stay as close as possible behind them. That shortens mission reaction times and increases air time possible for combat missions. The 316th from the beginning devised a system of two party moves. Our men and a portion of operating ground equipment (including the mess section -- especially the mess section) would be divided into A and B parties. Once the advance party had set up at a new base, we could land our aircraft there after the day's missions and be ready to fly again the next morning. Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey could not have done it better. On our last move of the war to Echterdingen, Germany, our B party may not have arrived until V.E. Day (as stated in the History -- I would have sworn that they arrived before that) but as usual our advance party was there and all set up for us when the planes arrived.
That happy day was marred by tragedy. When the flight ahead of mine peeled off for landing, one of our pilots seemed to freeze on the controls, and didn't roll out on the base leg of the landing pattern. He made no radio transmission and did not respond when the pilot behind him yelled. "Roll Out!" We watched in helpless amazement as he held his left turn, nose high, power off attitude and mushed right into the ground. He was killed, of course, so there was no way to learn whether he had control problems because of a heart attack or what caused the accident.
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