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)
(Page 2 of 6)
The surviving Messerschmitts withdrew over the hills, leaving “Y-34 Metz” in shambles. Wounded pilot Carl
Riggs, then a second lieutenant, recalls, “There was devastation everywhere. Burning planes were all over the place.” Greasy clouds of black smoke spiraled skyward, and the thud of bombs exploding in the fires punctuated the sudden silence. Twenty-two P-47s lay burning on the field, and another 11 were badly damaged. The 386th Fighter Squadron was effectively out of action, and at least 11 men had been wounded. For the Hell Hawks, the raid was a sobering taste of the war they had brought to the enemy. “It was terrifying to be on the receiving end of the tactics we’d been using all along,” says Riggs.
Despite the havoc the Luftwaffe had wreaked on Y-34, Operation Bodenplatte was a failure: 40 percent of the 850 attacking German fighters were destroyed or damaged, and 234 attacking pilots were killed, captured, or wounded.
The 365th ground crews, like those in other units hit by the Luftwaffe that day, turned quickly to the business of salvaging and repairing their damaged aircraft. The “ground pounders,” as the pilots sometimes called the maintenance crews, dug new foxholes, dragged wrecked airplanes off the field, and patched the ones with reparable damage. Cannibalizing the wrecked P-47s, the ground crews scrambled to turn around the survivors. By sharing aircraft from the two squadrons that had been airborne at the time of the attack, pilots from all three squadrons got back in the air that afternoon.
In the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, ground crews had a rugged, reliable fighter, perfect for the mud and spartan repair facilities of their forward airfields. It was called “the Jug” because of its milk bottle shape—its beefy construction and the efficient Republic design made it relatively simple to maintain under combat conditions.
Originally designed as a high-altitude interceptor, the P-47 first flew in May 1941. The brutish fuselage was married to a pair of graceful, semi-elliptical wings mounted with eight heavy .50-caliber machine guns. It derived its power from a 2,000-horsepower, 18-cylinder, Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radial engine with a turbo-supercharger. With full tanks, ammunition, and two 1,000-pound bombs, later models weighed in at a hefty 19,400 pounds, more than any other single-engine fighter of World War II.
The P-47D entered combat in March 1943. With Lockheed’s P-38 Lightning needed in the Pacific and the superb North American P-51 Mustang still in development, the Thunderbolt filled the need for a long-range escort for the bomber offensive from England. Its massive engine propelled the P-47 to a speed of 433 mph at 30,000 feet.
As the 1944 cross-Channel invasion approached, the Mustang arrived in the European theater and proved both more agile and longer-legged than the fuel-thirsty Thunderbolt. The Ninth Air Force Fighter Command, led by Major General Elwood “Pete” Quesada, needed a sturdy attack fighter to insulate the Allies in Normandy from German reinforcements and support the ground forces after D-Day. The P-47’s rugged design and powerful armament were perfect for those jobs.
Unlike the inline powerplants of the Mustang and Lightning, the P-47’s radial engine was air-cooled: It dispensed with a radiator and liquid coolant system, which were so vulnerable to a lucky enemy shot. More than one Thunderbolt returned to base with a cylinder blown away, its connecting rod dangling. The big engine up front, coupled with armor plate fore and aft of the cockpit, gave the pilot extensive protection from enemy fighters and ground fire. The turbocharger’s ducts, running the length of the lower fuselage, protected a pilot’s legs from the jarring crunch of an emergency belly landing. Flight chief Alvin Bradley of the 386th Fighter Squadron is adamant about the aircraft he once maintained: “It was the safest, toughest plane to bring somebody back after it was damaged.”
In late June 1944, crew chiefs, sheet metal workers, armorers, radio techs, propeller specialists, and engine mechanics of the Ninth Air Force, the U.S. tactical air arm in northwest Europe, crossed the Invasion beaches to meet their airplanes and pilots in Normandy. Just a few weeks after D-Day, nearly a dozen Thunderbolt groups were active on new airstrips, some carved out under enemy fire.