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August 2019
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US Air Force

From Farm Boy to Fighter Pilot

From Farm Boy to Fighter Pilot
 
By Colonel Walter N. HEGDES (Ret)
 
374th Fighter Squadron
 
361st Fighter Group
 
My association with the 8th Air Force is through the 361st Fighter Group where I was assigned as a P-51 pilot from October 1944 to July 1945. The 361st Fighter Group was credited with participation in the Battle of the Bulge. When I was young and picking strawberries on our Delaware farm, I once saw planes flying in formation, and knew they were having more fun than I was. Since then, I always wanted to fly.
 
On the 4th of June 1942 my sister Theresa and I graduated from Laurel High school in a class of 31. Of the fifteen boys that were in the class I can think of only three who did not enter one of the military services.
 
My older brother Nathan had requested two letters of recommendation so that he could volunteer for aviation cadet training. So I asked my parents to get two letters for me. With my two letters, I went to Wilmington and put in my application. In a few days I got a letter telling me to report to Fort Dix, New Jersey.
 
Having passed my physical, I got a letter telling me to report to the Post Office in Camden, New Jersey. There, on November 30th 1942, I was sworn in as an enlisted Private in the Reserve Corp.
 
After completing our six weeks of college classes we were again loaded on a train; this time with Pullman cars, which I guess does prove that a college education pays off. At the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center, we were to go through classification and, if qualified, on to preflight training. Our classification consisted of many written tests, motor skill tests, and a visit with a psychologist or psychiatrist (I don’t know which.) All of this testing and evaluation was to determine whether you should enter pilot training, bombardier training, or navigator training. I had to go see the psychologist a second time, and he asked me why I was so nervous. I told him it was because I was afraid that he wouldn’t let me go to pilot training, and he said, “Well, if you don’t, you know it’s for your own good!” I told him, “Well, it might be, but that isn’t what I enlisted to be. I want to be a pilot.” I guess he believed me, because he passed me for pilot training, which took place at Corsicana, Texas, where we were assigned for primary flying school.
 
Near the end of the basic flying course you were asked to make a choice as to where you wanted to go for advanced training, and I chose pilot training. For advanced training I was sent to Aloe Field at Victoria, Texas, where I flew the AT-6. I also flew the P-40. After completing the 15-20 hours of flying time in the P-40, I finished my 200 hours of flying time, and on the 15th of April 1944, I graduated as a pilot and was promoted to Second Lieutenant. We were again loaded up on the train and took a long ride to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, which was a staging area for the port of New York.
 
Meanwhile my brother, Nathan, had been eliminated from the flight training in the cadet program and had gone to gunnery school, training for the B24 prior to going to Europe. Nathan and I were later to fly several missions together for the 8th Air Force.
 
After 5 days of crossing the Atlantic, we arrived in Liverpool. Due to the speed at which the Mauritania could travel, we did not have an escort going across the Atlantic until we were close to the English shore. We then had some escort ships pick us up with some aircraft overhead. From Liverpool we boarded one of the quaint little trains for a trip to Goxhill, which was located on the northeast coast of England, a few miles south of a port city of Hull, where shipyards and dry docks were located.
 
After completing our training at Goxhill, it was time for the pilots to be reassigned to the fighter units. We were told that if a group of us wanted to go together, we could match up our number of pilots with the number that is required for a Fighter Group, and then we could get assigned together to that unit. Some of my buddies and I were sent to the 361st Fighter Group.
 
On November the 25th 1944, I flew my first regular combat mission. It was escort to Lutzkendorf. I don’t remember exactly where that is, but it was a deep penetration mission, because we logged 5 hours 35 minutes flying time. It was our commander’s practice (Major Rew) to take the first mission for new pilots and fly them as his wing-man. I doubt there were many other squadron commanders who would trust their protection to a first mission pilot. I flew again the next day, and again the mission was escorting a radio relay ship. While we were escorting the relay ship, the fighter escort for the bombers encountered a large number of German fighters: ME 109s and FW 190s. The Group had their best day of the war destroying 23 German airplanes, probably destroying 2 others and damaging 9. We had no losses during this encounter—however, one pilot had to crash land in Holland on his way back home. Thankfully, he survived. Among those claiming victories in this encounter was my flight commander John Wilkinson and my good buddy Richard Chandler. Also claiming victories among the fellows who came from Waycross, Georgia were Robert Farney and Delmar Ford. Ford was killed later in the war, while strafing an aerodrome.
 
The next mission I flew was on November 30th. We were escorting B-17s that were bombing an oil refinery area north of Munich. The weather was clear, not a cloud in the sky, when the first bombers came to the target area. They were all making contrails, and before the middle of the bomb stream had passed, the clouds had completely covered the area with nothing but contrails. There was more than 1,000 B-17s on the one target. The target area was covered with a cloud of black smoke from the anti-aircraft fire. It looked like a thunderhead that was totally black. The B-17s would fly into this cloud and then they would be streaming out from the bottom or the sides, some planes on fire and some upside-down. I believe there were 49 B-17s lost on this mission. We also had about the same number of fighter plane escorts, and did not see a German airplane in the area. We did see one P-47 that came towards our formation and appeared that he wanted to join up. However, we turned towards him and he turned away. After he had gone, I realized that he did not have an external tank on the airplane, so I don’t know how he could have made it back to friendly territory with no external fuel. There was some speculation that it might have been a German flying the P-47, to pass information back to the defense units there.
 
My next mission was an escort of B-17s to Berlin on the 5th of December. As we approached the target area, we followed the usual practice of not being close to the bombers when they entered the flak barrage. We were well to the south of the bomber track and flying east, which gave us a good tail wind. Suddenly, three rounds of German anti-aircraft fire burst between me and the lead ship, and three more burst between the lead ship and the plane flying in the number three position. The second volley of six rounds scored hits on two of our aircraft, but not enough to cause them to discontinue the mission. When the first rounds went off, we all broke in different directions like a covey of quail. I broke to what appeared to be the thin area of the barrage, that later turned out to be further eastward. My other flight members had broken to the other direction. When the shooting stopped and I looked around, I was on the east side of Berlin and my other flight members were on the west side, and were heading westward to escort the bombers home. I had two choices. I could go to the south and go around the area where the flack was coming from, but I figured this would put me so far behind the other planes that I’d not be able to see them. The other choice was to go straight across the area and then catch up with them. I opted to do the latter. I revved up the airplane to nearly full speed, and dove down toward the cloud cover, and started across the southern part of Berlin. As soon as I reached the city limits, they started shooting at me. They were using radar-directed flak and they were firing behind me and on the right, so I started a turn to the left. They were now chasing me around in a circle. I soon figured I couldn’t keep doing this, so the next time I came out on a westerly heading, I dove down to the top of the clouds. As I pulled out on the cloud deck, the engine quit. I had run an external tank dry. Without even pulling back the throttle, I reached down and switched the fuel selector valve to an internal tank. The engine started and I went full speed after my friends and did not look back any more.
 
We returned to the base. After the debriefing, I approached Major Rew, who was also flying that day and leading the squadron. I said, “Major Rew, I don’t have much experience in this, but it seems to me that was pretty good shooting the Germans were doing today.” He replied, “You’re damn right it was! I think we got into instructor school on demonstration day.”
 
I again flew on target escort to Minden on December 6th, another escort mission to Bingen on December 10th, and again on December 12th to Hannau. The next day, the very bad winter weather, for which the Battle of the Bulge was to become famous, began. My next combat mission was on the 18th of December, when I flew a fighter sweep at the Laacher Lake Bonn-Aachen area. The weather was so bad over Germany that I don’t think the bombers flew their scheduled bombing mission. There was no activity in the vicinity, so near the end of our mission, someplace in the south of Aachen, we let down through the clouds and broke out below at 6,000 to 8,000 feet. We could see the ground from there and when a group of flashes appeared, one of our pilots, I believe it was Herbert Dixon, said, “Hey, guys, look! See the flashes—they’re bombing through the clouds.” The rest of us knew what the flashes were, and we started our evasive maneuvers, but Dixon was on the radio talking, and nobody could tell him that is was not bombs but 88 millimeter anti-aircraft guns that were shooting at us. Dixon got a piece of shrapnel through his canopy, and we quickly went back into the clouds and departed the area. That was only the third day of the Battle of the Bulge. Normally the 88 millimeter anti-aircraft would not have shot at us at that altitude, because the fighters, with a dispersed formation and frequently changing directions and altitude, were not a good target. However, with the Battle of the Bulge just starting, I could think they probably wanted to shoot and chase us away, which they did.
 
During the last half of December, 1944, and most of January, the weather was terrible. We had a large snowstorm, large for English standards, and several days of ice and fog. Whenever the weather was suitable, we flew only to check out new pilots or fly some test flights that needed to be flown after major engine work. We had Lyle L. Jewel from Michigan join our flight in December. The squadron got three new replacements in the first week of January, and two of those were killed on the first flight. Both deaths were attributed somewhat to weather conditions.
 
About the first of February, we all moved from Little Walden over to our new base in Belgium at Chièvres. On the 6th of February I flew my first combat mission from Belgium, and during the month flew a total of seven missions. The mission I remember the most was on February the 22nd, when the group went out in two sections. One section was escorting B-26s that were attacking communications centers and rail yards. The other section was strafing the same targets. I was in the section escorting the B-26s. However, I was also on the same radio channel with the fellows doing the strafing. I heard—midway through the mission—my friend Chandler call his flight leader as he came off a target, and he was said, “Hey, Latimer, I’m having trouble keeping up. Slow up a little.” The flight leader replied, “Okay, I’ll throttle back.” A few seconds later, Chandler said, “I still can’t catch up with you. There’s something desperately wrong here!” That made me chuckle, because I had seldom heard Chandler use a three syllable word—however, I knew he was in trouble. One of the other members said, “Hey Chandler, I think you’d better check. I think you’re on fire.” He checked his gauges and said, “Yeah, I believe so.” The flight leader exclaimed, “You’d better bail out, Chandler!” He replied, “Well I don’t know how I’m going to get out, but I’m going to try!” From about 12,000 feet, he rolled the plane over on its back, jettisoned his canopy, fell out, and delayed opening his parachute. When the chute opened, he made one swing and hit the ground. He picked up the parachute in his arms and ran into the woods nearby. Chandler later told me that by hiding in the woods during the daytime, and walking at nighttime, he evaded capture for three days. However, he spent the rest of the war in prison camp.
 
Sometime in February, our flight leader John Wilkinson, who had now been promoted to Captain, finished his tour and rotated home. Since I was now the senior pilot in the flight that did not have an assigned airplane, I was assigned to fly his plane, “Pretty One the III.” I don’t know how that name came to be, but I didn’t want to change the name, because it was sometimes considered unlucky if you changed the name of an airplane. The crew chief on the plane was Ross Benson from Idaho. He not only kept the plane performing perfectly, but it was also spotlessly clean. Having confidence in the airplane, and having a clean canopy and windshield, made flying combat missions much easier.
 
When we went to a briefing for a mission, we were given a 3” x 4” preprinted form, on which we entered much of the data we would need to complete the mission. After the flight, starting about the first of March, I wrote notes on the back of the form as to what went on during the mission. I still have eight to ten of those forms.
 
I had learned that my brother Nathan was also in the 2nd Air Division, and was a gunner in the 392nd Bomb Group at Wendling. As it turned out, Nathan had finished his tour of 30 missions on the lead crew, and had rotated back to the states before we knew that we had flown some missions together. I have an account of his last mission on March 3rd, when we were flying escort for his group. For that mission, we had a briefing at 7:00 for a 7:41 takeoff. It was snowing a little, with some low cumulus clouds. On takeoff, Young’s engine quit, but he was able to stop on the runway and he was not hurt. After takeoff, Rizzio joined the flight to replace someone who had aborted. After a late takeoff, we went north like the “hammers of hell” and overshot the rendezvous with the bombers. When there was a break in the under cast, we were over the Baltic Sea, in sight of the mountains of Sweden. Finally, we caught the bombers, Silvertail B-24s, a few minutes before target time. There were German jet aircraft in the area that Mac and I chased but couldn’t catch, even while going 400 MPH! I fired on two from well out of range and didn’t observe any results. During the mission, I saw two bombers collide and one spinning down over the target. This was the first time I saw parachutes from bombers going down. The flak was described as better than yesterday, meaning that it was better from the German point of view.
 
Several days later, I received a letter from my brother Nathan saying that the March 3rd mission to Magnaburg was his 30th and final mission of his tour. The public information people made a newspaper story of it, in which they described it as Nathan having his big brother flying escort. They missed the point: that Nathan was nine years older than I. Magnaburg was considered about the second most difficult target, with only Berlin being a more difficult one. I have recently talked with Willis Miller, who was the pilot of Nathan’s crew, and from his description of the Magnaburg mission and other missions, I’m convinced that my decision to become a fighter pilot was one of the smartest decisions that I have ever made.
 
During March, I flew 17 missions. Among those was on the 14th of March when Dixon, Waldusky, and I were scheduled to fly combat air patrol over the Remagen Bridge. We briefed at 5:40 in the morning expecting to have a sunrise takeoff. However, the fog was so thick that we could not take off until 10:20. We took off with about 800 yards of visibility, and climbed through the fog to 3000 feet, where we were in the clear. We were under Nuthouse Control, which was the radar controller for the area, and he directed us to the Bridgehead area. Whenever they detected an unidentified aircraft, we would be directed to intercept them. In all cases, it was one of our own aircraft, usually a P-47. We flew at 10,000 feet, while below us were P-38s, which were in close because of their unusual configuration, so they would not be mistaken for German aircraft. Part of our mission was to protect the P-38s, which the Germans would attack—whereas they would not provoke a fight with the P-51s. The Germans were also trying to sneak aircraft in, to bomb the bridge that had been captured, and also the pontoon bridges that, by this time, had been placed across the Rhine River.
 
On the 22nd of March, we had a mission to escort about 200 British Lancaster Bombers on a daylight raid, to bomb marshalling yards in the town of Hildesheim. It was a perfectly clear day, and they were flying in their typical British gaggle of individual planes, following a pathfinder at about 8,000 feet. The British theory of bombing was: if you wanted to destroy the marshalling yard that was in a town, if you destroy the town, you’d probably destroy the marshalling yard—which they proceeded to do. There was such widespread destruction from 10,000-pound bombs and a mixture of small incendiaries, that by the time the last 30-40 bombers came, there were no military targets left. The fires were so widespread that when we dropped escort in the vicinity of Brussels, which was about 200 miles away, we could still see the smoke rising from Hildesheim, and the next day, the place was still burning.
 
Whenever we flew escort for our bombers, we would have one squadron flying on each side of the assigned box of bombers, and one squadron flying top cover. The B-17s usually flew an altitude of 27,000 feet, and the squadron on either side would be about 27,000-28,000 feet. The top cover would fly from about 30,000 feet on up.
 
Whenever the Group Assistant Operations Officer flew, he did so with our flight. The more experienced pilots in our flight considered his decision-making and leadership skills somewhat questionable, and they did not like to fly with him. So I usually got the job to fly wing-man for him. One day when he was leading the squadron and we came to the target area, where we usually circle wide and pick up the bombers after they bombed, he flew right through the flak barrage. After we returned home, and at the debriefing, one of the pilots said, “Major, why did you lead us through that flak barrage?” He replied, “Oh, I thought it might raise the morale of the bomber boys if they saw us in there with them.”
 
While stationed in Belgium, our escort missions were usually about one hour shorter than they were from England. So we would have plenty of time, after dropping escort, to go back into Germany and look for targets of opportunity on the ground. One day when our good Major was leading us, we did this, and going across the countryside, we spotted six or eight box cars on a railroad track. He flew across the train, made a right turn, and set up a traffic pattern like we would have done at Waycross when we were doing ground gunnery, and then proceeded to come around and make a strafing run from across the open field. I was #4 in this formation, and I figured if there were anything around to stir up, they would have it stirred up good by the time I got there. So when I made my turn for the target, I sprayed the wooded area behind the train from well out of range and when I got into gunnery range of about 300 yards, I concentrated on the box cars. As luck would have it, it was not a flak trap as the Germans were famous for setting up.
 
Sometime in March, Colonel Rew was replaced by Major Charles Bergman, whom I believe came from Texas. In March, I was promoted to First Lieutenant, but there were no silver bars available anyplace. So I peeled the foil off chewing gum wrappers, and wrapped it around my gold bars. That served very well, unless you scraped against something— then you would have to replace it. During March, I was very busy, as I flew 17 missions in the month. By the beginning of April, spring was arriving in Belgium. The weather was good, and the war showed signs that it would soon be over. There were very few targets available other than airfields, which were crowded with airplanes. Apparently the Germans had to retreat from airfields on both fronts, and brought their airplanes back into Germany. But they did not have fuel or pilots to fly them.
 
On the 9th of April, we flew an escort mission for bombers bombing the Lechfeld Airfield and recovered back at Little Walden. We went back to the poor visibility and bad weather in England, just when things were getting good in Belgium.
 
On the 11th of April, I flew my last mission, which was a target support in the Regensburg area. This mission made my 7th in April and made a total of 40 for the war.
 
NOTE: This recollection was excerpted from a much longer story of Col. Hedges’ life. He is a member of BOBA, South Carolina Chapter 7.
Submitted by Rick Hurst, Chapter 7
 
Source: Battle of the Bulge Association Website, May 2, 2019
 

By Col Walter N HEDGES (Ret)

374th Fighter Squadron

361st Fighter Group

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World War II