Meet the men who kept the Thunderbolts flying.
- By Thomas D. Jones and Robert F. Dorr
- Air & Space magazine, July 2005
NASM (SI Neg. #00083262)
New Year’s Day, 1945, dawned clear and cold for the tired men of the 365th Fighter Group, stationed in Metz, France. Hangars that once sheltered the group’s three Republic P-47D Thunderbolt squadrons had been bombed, and the crews were working in maintenance and operations tents they had set up on the flightline. By 9 a.m., the 387th and 388th Fighter Squadrons had already launched their bomb-laden Thunderbolts northeast to search out supply lines and Nazi forces trying to escape eastward. The ground crews waited as the pilots of the remaining squadron, the 386th, donned parachutes and headed out to their airplanes. It was the first day of the seventh year of the Second World War.
That day in the life of the 365th was chronicled in detail by then-Staff Sergeant Charles Johnson, the group’s official historian. In his 1975 book The History of the Hell Hawks, Johnson reported an exchange between Staff Sergeant George “Moocher” Wasson, a 365th crew chief, and a friend, Staff Sergeant John Lehnert. Wasson was trying to dry a cigarette butt he had just retrieved from the frozen ground, when Lehnert noticed him fumbling with it. “Hell, George, have a Camel!” Lehnert called, beckoning him over with a fresh cigarette. The two stood smoking and talking for a couple of minutes. Just as
Wasson resumed his walk to the hangar to fetch a part for his P-47, he heard someone yell, “Look at those P-51s buzzing the field!” Lehnert and
Wasson turned together and spotted the oncoming fighters—and muzzle flashes. “P-51s, my ass!” someone shouted. “Those are Germans!”
Sixteen Messerschmitt Bf 109s swept in from the hills north of the field, heading directly for the fully loaded Thunderbolts clustered on steel-mat hardstands. The 109s were part of a last-ditch Luftwaffe strike, a mission code-named Bodenplatte (Paving Tiles). Since the Allies’ breakout from Normandy in August 1944, General Dwight Eisenhower’s armies had pressed up to Germany’s fortified frontier, where supply problems, winter weather, and heavy German resistance had brought the advance to a crawl.
In support of Hitler’s Ardennes offensive, Hermann Goering’s Luftwaffe mustered its remaining fighter strength for a coordinated surprise attack on the Allies’ forward tactical airfields in Holland, Belgium, and France. The pilots, ground crews, and P-47s in Metz were all caught in the open.
As dozens of startled men dashed for cover in nearby gun pits, the German fighters hammered the field with long bursts of machine gun and cannon fire. Bullets and shells from the 109s’ propeller-hub-mounted cannon blew holes in the parked fighters. Explosions cracked across the open field as gas tanks caught fire, detonating bombs and ammunition.
Tech Sergeant Marion Hill, then-chief noncommissioned officer of the 365th’s intelligence section (now a retired chemist living in Oregon), remembers diving for the foundation wall of a burned-out barracks. “That first pass was right overhead,” Hill recalls. “They just missed us.” His luck didn’t hold out long. “I heard a whoosh.” A shell fragment ricocheted off the foundation and hit him in the face. “I saw my gloves and lower left arm covered in blood.” He was hastily bandaged under fire and evacuated on a stretcher.
Meanwhile, on a 388th Squadron hardstand, Corporal Emanuel Catanuto spotted his friend Corporal Lee Weldon trapped in a Thunderbolt cockpit, a German bullet in his thigh. As repeated strafing passes set the airplane afire, Catanuto vaulted to Weldon’s rescue. He reached through the smoke and searing heat, opened the cockpit’s door, jerked Weldon free, and tumbled backward off the wing. Grabbing Weldon by his good leg, he dragged the blood-soaked mechanic 30 yards to safety. Suddenly, the P-47’s fuel tanks and bombs exploded, engulfing the two men in a hail of shrapnel. Both miraculously escaped unharmed.
The Army’s anti-aircraft gunners had been firing away at the Germans, and that began to take a toll on the attackers: One Bf 109 crashed in flames on the flightline, hurling its pilot from the cockpit. The body tumbled to a stop a few feet from where half a dozen Hell Hawks, members of the 365th Fighter Group, were huddled in a shallow pit. Flight chief Alvin Brady felt little sympathy for the dead German: “They got us into it, after all.” Another crew member said: “I saw a ring on his finger. If I’d had something to cut that finger off, I would have probably got that ring off him.” Someone else beat him to it.