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 4 of 5)
As the flare from Price’s P-47 disappeared into the white mist, Jim Wells noticed his own aircraft was trailing smoke. “Brook, I’m hit awful bad,” called Wells. “Well, we passed a hospital a way back,” Brooking answered. “I don’t know whether it’s American or German, but it had red crosses on it. Why don’t you go and try to belly in close to it?
Wells wasn’t keen on the suggestion. “I said, ‘The hell with that. I’m taking this thing west as far as it’ll go.’” Wells and Thoman popped up through the five hundred–foot overcast and got a vector for Liège, where the weather was marginally better.
Wells’ Thunderbolt, an all-aluminum-finish P-47D-25 named Betty Girl, streamed a thick trail of oily black smoke. “As we were coming in,” Wells said, “I saw this crowd of guys standing out there, and it looked like they were changing money. When I landed I asked the mechanic what was going on, and he said ‘Those guys was giving five-to-one odds that you would blow up before you got on the ground.’”
The 20mm hit had knocked out three or four cylinders on Wells’ engine, yet the twin-row Pratt & Whitney had produced power all the way back to Liège. Wells couldn’t stand the thought of abandoning that Thunderbolt; he waited a few days for repairs to D5-J, Betty Girl. Then, with her shrapnel holes patched and sporting a new engine, Wells flew her back to Chièvres.
Back in the target area, Brooking saw Thoman off with Wells, then orbited the enemy column, asking the IX TAC controller to send every available fighter-bomber. “When they get here,” he said, “tell them to call me and I’ll put them on the target. There’s plenty for all.” The 386th commander found other roads nearby packed with tanks and transports, and he repeatedly strafed and burned the lead vehicle, which in this hilly, snow-covered country effectively blocked the narrow lanes.
Other Thunderbolt squadrons arrived, the first from the 368th Fighter Group. Each flight checked in with Brooking, who led them to the proper hole in the shifting undercast. The Thunderbolts could now play hide-and-seek with the gunners, easing up into the mist to avoid flak and reappearing at will to snap into a sudden, devastating strafing run.
Brooking stayed as long as he dared, guiding each round of attackers in, only returning to Chièvres when his fuel was critically low. He turned his flak-scarred Thunderbolt off the runway two and a half hours after takeoff, running on fumes.
The Hell Hawks launched ten strike missions into the fog over the Ardennes that day. Major Arlo C. Henry, Jr. and Capt. Neal E. Worley both led missions from the 387th Squadron in mid-afternoon, following up on Brooking’s initial strikes on the enemy column. Worley, just back from leave, recalled December 18 as “the hairiest and scariest of days for the Hell Hawks. The weather was snowy all over Belgium, with ceilings of 250 to 350 feet and nine-tenths cloud cover. In that fog, squadron-sized missions were impossible. We had to go with individual flights.”
Worley, a flight leader, had been scouring his maps all morning for usable landmarks near the target. “We were antsy from the week or more of bad weather, anxious to get back into flying,” he said. The Royal Air Force charts provided to the Hell Hawks were so detailed that even the shape of individual woodlots could be used as navigation checkpoints.