Book Excerpt: Hell Hawks!
How P-47s became the tank busters of World War II
- By Robert F. Dorr and Thomas D. Jones
- AirSpaceMag.com, July 14, 2008
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force
(Page 2 of 5)
“I heard Brooking say that the old man had just told him we had to get a four-man flight up, and we were the only four there!” recalled Capt. James G. Wells, Jr. “That’s how we happened to luck into the mission, if you want to call it luck. They told us the flight had to go, because we had to go look for these tanks.”
Brooking finished briefing his flight, and the four boarded the beat-up pilots’ truck, the Weepin’ Carrier, to take them to the flight line. They arrived at their Thunderbolts around 12:30 p.m., the bone-chilling fog still swirling around the planes. Ceilings were less than a hundred feet, with visibility almost nil. “The weather was bad,” said Brooking, “but when you’re doing it every day you don’t get intimidated.” At 1:05 p.m. he led his flight—2nd Lt. Roy Wayne Price on his wing, with Wells leading 1st Lt. Robert C. Thoman—down the runway into an enveloping fog. “We just stuck close together” in the soup, said Wells. Each Thunderbolt carried two five-hundred-pound delayed-action bombs, one under each wing. Stecker ordered successive flights to launch at twenty-minute intervals.
Brooking, having fought in the area the day before, led his flight to the battle. A thick blanket of fog cloaked the countryside below, a solid white floor beneath their P-47s. Searching for a break in the undercast, Brooking orbited for half an hour without success. Two successive flights of Hell Hawks arrived, only to be sent back to Chièvres by Brooking. Frustrated, he keyed his mike button:
“I’m going down there to poke around by myself. There must be a break somewhere in these mountains.”
“You’re crazy,” said Bob Thoman, who knew that some of the wooded ridgelines below topped two thousand feet above sea level. But Brooking circled lower, looking for an opening.
Finally, he spotted a hole in the undercast, with a bare minimum of flying room between the snow-covered forest and the clouds above. Brooking squeezed in, just above the tree tops, searching the valley floor beneath him. He found nothing; the valley roads were empty, and he managed a tight 180-degree turn and returned. Determined, Brooking tried another tactic.
Going low again, between the hilly terrain and the fog above, Brooking searched for an opening beneath the overcast that could lead him to the target. Ridge-hopping into the next valley, he nosed up into the overcast just long enough to clear the terrain, then dropped lower, tensing against an impact with the treetops just beneath this wings.
The Yank correspondent described what followed: “Suddenly he broke through the clouds! He wasn’t more than twenty feet above a huge concentration of German tanks and armored vehicles. . . . The Germans looked at Major Brooking, and Major Brooking looked at the Germans,” both parties so stunned at the appearance of the other that no one fired.
Brooking remembered, “it was hilly, rolling terrain, with a little village nearby. It looked like a mad scramble below, total confusion. I think they were completely surprised.” He squeezed off one burst, then pulled back up and gathered his other three pilots in the clear. Finding the same hole, Brooking led the four in after the panzers together, hoping again to thread the needle to clear the adjoining ridge.