Cold Front

Meet the men who kept the Thunderbolts flying.

Jugs in fearsome formation. (NASM (SI Neg. #00083262))
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The P-47’s mission—dive-bombing and low-level strafing—brought other headaches to the ground crews. All too often they saw their airplanes return with bent propellers, holes in wings and fuselage, and traces of the battlefield—dirt, stones, shrapnel, branches, leaves—embedded in the wings and cowling. But it was precisely the P-47’s ability to limp back with seemingly fatal damage that made it the ideal aircraft for ground attack.

Pilots returned with airplanes flayed by flak from German gunners, whose 88-mm and quad-mounted 20-mm guns were deadly at medium and low altitudes. Carrol Joy, a staff sergeant from the 406th, reports that his airplane once returned with 105 holes in it, and Shilling saw a P-47 return so badly shot up that “you could crawl through those holes in the wing.”

Warren Dronen, who flew 80 combat missions with the 362nd Fighter Group, once had his Thunderbolt perforated by flak, holes stitching his wing with “a sound like a sewing machine.” He managed to get back safely. With the prop windmilling to a stop, his crew chief jumped up on the wing, took one look at the battered airplane, and said, “Jeez, Lieutenant! Why the hell did you bring that thing back here?”

Ground crews saw the evidence of close combat on their airplanes, and in the faces of their pilots, every day. Yet they seldom got a direct taste of war. “You didn’t actually kill somebody face to face,” wrote Frank Mangan in his 2003 book Mangan’s War. “You merely helped from a distance.” But as the tempo of fighting increased near the German frontier, the sustained air-to-ground onslaught inevitably touched everyone.

In Metz, a 365th gas truck driver was fatally wounded by the propeller hub from a crashing Thunderbolt. In Florennes, Belgium, a crew chief was struck by a stray shell from the guns of a landing P-38 Lightning. “He was dead before he hit the ground,” Charles Johnson wrote.

But it was the Battle of the Bulge—when the Germans penetrated deep into Belgium in December 1944, creating a “bulge” in the Allied line—that brought the immediacy of war to the 365th ground crews. Between bouts of bitter winter weather, each Thunderbolt was slashing at the German advance with several sorties a day. In addition to the steady work of maintaining and re-arming the Jugs, the ground crews pulled guard duty during the long, freezing nights, staying on the lookout for German infiltrators.

The temperature hovered near zero, recalls Alvin Bradley, and snow drifted so deep on the Hell Hawks’ runway that crew chiefs had to repeatedly taxi a few fighters back and forth to blow the steel matting clear. James Hagan, a staff sergeant and crew chief with the 365th, remembers the frostbitten toes and fingers that came with the all-out effort to keep the P-47s in the air. Engine changes, refueling, re-arming: All were done outdoors in the snow and frozen mud.

The war’s last frigid winter turned the demanding work of maintaining a Thunderbolt into an ordeal. Shilling remembers working through a brutally cold night with a fellow crew chief to change a P-47 carburetor—work too intricate for gloves. One worked, hands deep in the frigid engine, while the other warmed his frozen fingers over a makeshift ammo-box stove. Finally they got the job done. “The plane was shot down the next day,” says Shilling.

When a mission returned, the crews shifted into high gear. “The planes were in varying condition: broken windows, oily windshields, bullet holes or flak tears here and there,” wrote Johnson. If the pilots mishandled the throttle and water injection system on takeoff or in combat, they’d bring back blown cylinders and broken connecting rods. When leaks developed in valve cover gaskets, a fine film of oil sometimes sprayed back over the windscreen—a constant cause of complaints among the pilots.

Crews had to fill fuel and oil tanks, install drop tanks, and top off the water injection system next to the firewall (used to keep the fuel-air mixture from pre-igniting in the cylinders at high power settings). The armorers reloaded the wing bays with fresh belts of .50-caliber ammunition (about 300 rounds per gun) and wrestled a pair of 1,000-pound bombs into their under-wing shackles. The crew chiefs and their assistants did most of the servicing, while flight and line chiefs assigned specialists to tackle battle damage or pilot squawks. The crews were lucky if they had an hour to get the P-47Ds back in the air.

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