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)

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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.

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.

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