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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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.

His flight, the seventh from the Hell Hawks to grapple with fog and German armor in the Ardennes that day, followed Arlo Henry’s into the air at 2:55 p.m. Arriving near the battle area, Worley called his mentor (“I grew up flying on Arlo’s wing,” said Worley) to guide him in. “Arlo, where are you?”, said Worley, and the reply was instant. “I’m working over the panzer division, over the mountain from where they told you,” said Henry.

“I told my wingman and second element to come in close,” said Worley, to keep from losing them in the clouds. The flight nosed up into the soup and climbed to clear the ridge tops hidden in the murk. “This is a hell of a way to fight a war,” thought Worley, inching down now through the mist into what he hoped was the valley beneath them. “We broke out of the clouds so low that off my wing I could see this big black raven sitting on a tree branch.” Worley’s flight hurtled down the slope beneath ragged gaps in the low clouds, exposing the smoke and flames still rising from the now-dispersed column. The four Thunderbolts picked their targets and dive-bombed deliberately.

“On my first run I spotted the biggest, tallest SS officer I ever saw, standing there in his black uniform, emptying his pistol at me,” said Worley. “We stayed on them for fifteen minutes. One bombing pass, maybe four passes altogether. When we left, half-tracks and trucks were burning, and smoke was going up to about three thousand feet.”

During their strafing runs, one of Worley’s wingmen, 1st Lt. James F. McCabe, had his Thunderbolt bracketed by truck-mounted 20mm cannon. One pilot from another group wrote that “the flak tracers were like garden hoses with projectiles arcing lazily through the air towards me. I remember so violently slipping and skidding as streams of flak fire reached for me, sometimes within three feet of my wing surfaces.” McCabe’s DFC citation read: “Despite adverse weather and the hazards of intense and accurate enemy fire, Lt. McCabe fearlessly and skillfully dropped his bombs and completely destroyed three enemy tanks. . . . The explosion that followed caught his plane and seriously damaged it, but . . . he brought his plane to a safe landing.”

Worley’s flight claimed forty trucks upon debriefing back at Chièvres. Looking back, he was emphatic about his group’s contribution to the fight in the Ardennes. “I got a lot of satisfaction from that mission. We were a tactical outfit. If you could pick one day to show what the Hell Hawks were all about—their value as a combat outfit—this was it. December 18 was one of our finest days in showing off our capabilities.”

Late afternoon saw more Hell Hawks arrive over Stavelot, blasting tanks, half-tracks, and trucks. The combination of clear bombing conditions and determined attacks from these later missions destroyed nearly one hundred enemy vehicles. Pilots groped their way back to Chièvres through fog so thick that ground crewmen set burning flares along the runway to help them spot the base. By the close of the day’s combat, the Hell Hawks claimed 15 panzers among a grand total of more than 125 armored vehicles and transports destroyed, with another 34 damaged. Given the tracer-filled skies over Stavelot that day, the toll from German gunners on December 18 was surprisingly light: two P-47s lost to crash landings and seven heavily damaged.

Next day, a high-ranking First Army officer phoned Ninth Air Force commander, Maj. Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg, saying, “Thank God for your men yesterday.”
Vandenberg’s headquarters received a teletype on December 19, confirming that the air attacks on the enemy column forced it from its westward advance, diverting it south. Advancing First Army units, shoring up the northern flank of the Bulge on the 20th, discovered that the actual damage inflicted by the Hell Hawks and other fighter-bomber groups on the wrecked German column exceeded the pilots’ claims. One who grudgingly recognized the effectiveness of the P-47s was Waffen-SS Gen. Sepp Dietrich, commander of the Sixth Panzer Army, who complained, “The worst of it is that those damned Jabos don’t distinguish between generals and anyone else—it was terrible.”
Ray Stecker wrote commendations for both Motzenbecker and Brooking, but didn’t hold out much hope for approval, noting that headquarters would dismiss the pair’s heroism because “they didn’t shoot down a single enemy aircraft.” Of his boss, Brooking, Bob Hagan said simply, “He had a lot of guts, letting down in those clouds over the Bulge.” For once, headquarters agreed with a lowly second lieutenant. The author of Brooking’s citation noted how he led his four planes against the spearhead of the German attack:  “Although weather conditions were extremely unfavorable and anti-aircraft fire from the ground emplacements extremely heavy, Major Brooking remained alone . . . he fearlessly led and guided other flights to attack the tank column although his own aircraft was seriously damaged.” For his gallantry, “skill, cool judgement, and courage,” Brooking received the Silver Star.

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