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 3 of 5)
Wells remembered that “we finally got talking to [a ground] controller who could see the tanks, and could hear us, and he said that we were on the other side of this little mountain range from them. They kept trying to talk us in, and we tried to get there, but we kept running out of space. We were getting right into the treetops and we had to make a one-eighty to stay in contact [with each other]. Then, finally we found a spot where we could stay on top of the trees and get over.”
The four Thunderbolts crested the ridge and whistled down into the adjoining valley, barely a hundred feet off the deck. Wells was astonished: “When we went over, we saw all these tanks lined up on the road.”
The P-47s lined up for their attack runs. Brooking led, skimming the deck, just a few feet beneath the curtain of fog. The Hell Hawks chose targets in the column and opened up with their .50-calibers. Hurtling in on the line of armored vehicles, they were met with a tremendous concentration of flak thrown up by the now-alerted gunners. The tracers didn’t stop the release of all eight bombs, which detonated up and down the road.
Wells recalled, “Well, when we found them, we did a three-sixty and went around, and each of us picked out a side of this tank column to hit. And we went in with delayed-action bombs [with an] eight- to eleven-second delay. So it was timed so that you could drop the bomb and you could look back. And I looked back and I saw that my bombs had hit right in this group of tanks.”
Wells knew how to aim. “We were probably, I don’t know, a hundred yards from them when we released . . . doing probably right around 350 or 400 [miles per hour].”
He put his bombs into a cluster of panzers cresting a small hill. The close-range blast effect was devastating, even to the seasoned Wells. “It just blew ‘em apart,” he said. “I just saw tank pieces flying everywhere. And where the tanks had been was a big gap in the road,” blocked by his two bomb craters. Wells observed several tanks upended down the hillside, their 88mm main guns twisted at crazy angles. Soon, fires were burning amid the trapped vehicles, but the ground fire was undiminished in its ferocity.
Wells was asked if the Germans were trying to shoot back. “They were doing a pretty good job of it!” he answered, with the barest hint of a chuckle. “What you could see was the tracers coming, and they looked like they were coming right at you, and then they looked like they turned and went behind you, most of ‘em. As soon as we got down from the run, that’s when Brooking’s wingman called and told us he was hit.”
Lieutenant Price, from Sunnyvale, California, reported that his P-47 had been badly damaged. After radioing his intention to belly land, he disappeared, trailing flames, into the white fog bank over the battle. Price put the plane down gently enough to skid to a stop, shaken but unhurt. He stayed off the roads while heading generally west, and two days later met troops from the 30th Infantry Division near Stavelot. The GIs, wary of infiltrators, treated him with suspicion, especially after finding Price’s sidearm: a German P-38 automatic. Fortunately, a first sergeant from Sunnyvale soon established Price’s bona fides. He returned to the Hell Hawks just before Christmas, but not before his squadron mates had divided up his clothes, booze, and cigarettes.