Book Excerpt: Hell Hawks!

How P-47s became the tank busters of World War II

The P-47D carried eight guns and, on some models, rocket launchers. (National Museum of the U.S. Air Force)

The Ninth Air Force efforts to counter the massive German attack during the Battle of the Bulge are among the most storied close air support missions of all time. The star of the action was the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt.  In Robert F. Dorr and Thomas D. Jones follow the combat experiences of the 365th Fighter Group, three squadrons of pilots who flew P-47s, from just before D-day, June 6, 1944, to the German surrender on May 8, 1945. The following excerpt demonstrates how the attacks flown by the 365th helped blunt the German winter offensive of 1944-45 and pave the way for the final Allied advance into Germany.

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The Hell Hawks pilots and hard-working ground crews faced their biggest combat challenge during Hitler’s last big offensive in the West. A furious attack by 250,000 German troops on December 16, 1944, surprised Allied troops in the Ardennes, a forested plateau on the Belgian-German border that had been the scene of earlier fighting in both world wars. The Germans opened the assault along a fifty-mile front, initially committing twenty-one infantry and armored divisions. They called the operation Wacht am Rhein (Watch on the Rhine); the Americans called it the Battle of the Bulge. It was the largest and most desperate battle U.S. forces would fight.

With the German attack in full swing on the 16th, the outnumbered GIs on the Ardennes front needed every plane in the air, putting bombs and bullets on the enemy. But the weather—low clouds, snow, and fog—was with Hitler, grounding every Allied aircraft and making air support impossible.

Morning on December 18, the third day of the Wacht am Rhein offensive, found the Hell Hawks in Belgium blanketed by an icy, opaque fog. In near zero-zero conditions, Maj. Bob Fry led seventeen planes off at mid-morning, but all were forced to return; bad visibility obscured any possible target in the Stavelot, Belgium, area, where German tanks were reported moving up. Only flares lining the runway enabled the pilots to feel their way back to the ground at Chièvres.

According to a report of that day’s action in Yank magazine, Col. Ray Stecker’s phone rang about noon. On the line was Col. Gilbert L. “Gil” Meyers, the operations officer at IX Tactical Air Command, who knew of Stecker’s long experience and success in conducting air-support operations in North Africa. No other IX TAC groups got the call that day, wrote the Yank correspondent, adding that Meyers had long regarded Stecker as a specialist at getting at the enemy under the worst conditions.

“That Jerry column you hit the other day,” Meyers said, “has been reinforced and has broken through our lines to Stavelot [twenty-five miles south of Aachen]. In fact, there is now nothing between it and the English Channel but service troops and cooks and bakers.”
“The weather—” said Stecker.

“I know,” said Meyers, “the weather is down on the deck, and it probably will be suicide, but we’ve got to get something in there or the bastards will be in Liège. If you can just send a four-plane flight, it might help.”

“I’ll see what we can do,” said Stecker. The group commander hung up and called in the 386th Squadron commander, Bob Brooking. His men had been standing by since daybreak. Stecker briefed him on what was at stake, and Brooking returned to brief his men.

“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.

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