First Blood in the Air

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Terrence Popravak, Jr.
  • 142nd Fighter Wing History Department
During World War II the 142nd Fighter Wing was designated as the 371st Fighter Group, a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter unit that flew combat in the European Theater of Operations. As such, the 142FW inherited the lineage and honors of the 371st Fighter Group. Accomplishments of the 371FG are the 142nd's, and worth remembering and commemorating.

One of these significant events to recall is the first time the unit engaged in aerial combat with the enemy. It was on June 8, 1944, when the 371st Fighter Group first battled with the German Luftwaffe in air-to-air combat in the skies of Europe. The several engagements the group had that day showed the enemy was present, could strike with deadly speed, but could also be defeated.

On that day, the group flew three missions over Normandy, all patrols over the beach head at Normandy. The three fighter squadrons of the group covered the area northeast of Le Havre, France, between Isigny and Caen, and also the area NW of the beach head. The area northeast of Le Havre would prove to be the prime area of contact.

The morning mission covered the beach head from roughly 0615 to 0730. The 371FG was the third group that morning to cover the Normandy landing areas, so the enemy was well-aware that friendly fighters were about.

At 0645 a flight of the 404th Fighter Squadron, which was covering the Le Havre sector, was attacked from above by four German Me-109's. Minutes later, another flight was jumped by four Me-109's. 2nd Lt. Willis R. Brown's aircraft was hit and he was wounded in the hand. Flight Officer Wesley R. Izzard was hit flying P-47D-15 serial number 42-76187 and bailed out 12 miles northeast of LeHavre, near Goderville. Izzard recounted the experience in his 1994 book, "Winged Boot" as follows: "There was a smashing explosion. I heard metal tearing metal. That is a sound you never forget. There was another blast and another. I turned my head around and an Me-109 was parked just off my tail, pumping bullet after bullet of 20mm cannon shells into my plane. That was the beginning of the end....I started to dive away from the Messerschmidt when he drilled a twenty through my canopy. It exploded in the cockpit just four inches from my head. Its explosion shattered my instrument panel into pieces of whipping wire, broken glass and shattered metal. That did it! Get out!"

Izzard continued: "The last time I looked at my airspeed it was showing four hundred twenty-five miles an hour. You are not supposed to bail out of a P-47 over two hundred miles an hour I pushed my broken canopy back. I put both hands on my mirror, over the windscreen, and put my feet on the stick. This forced my plane into a vertical dive and threw me out of the plane tumbling into the ripping wind." The Luftwaffe had drawn first blood. But the day was just beginning.

No other engagements occurred in the other sectors on the morning mission, and things were quiet in all sectors when the 371FG flew the midday mission. The third and last mission of the day saw several air engagements occur.

The 404th Fighter Squadron was patrolling the Isigny to Caen sector, and the overcast that day proved problematic to keeping the squadron together, and the flights got separated. One flight reached the Carentan area but the weather forces it to abort the patrol. The other flights of the squadron covered their sector from 1630 to 1715.

At 1650 hours, a 404th patrol flight encountered 12-15 Me-109s heading southwest in the Cormeilles area and engaged them. Capt. George D. Pieck shot down one Me-109 in the fight, and described the engagement as follows:

"I was leading Trademark Red Flight flying at 20,000 feet. I let down through a thin layer of clouds and breaking out at 19,000 feet saw about 15 ME 109's at 12 O'clock level approaching us at 45 degrees. I called the flight to break left. At the same time the enemy aircraft broke in all directions. I singled one out and did one 360 degree turn with him, attempting to position myself. He broke off toward the deck and I followed him down giving him a four second burst with about 20 degrees of deflection. After following him down to 2,000 feet and realizing my altitude and angle of dive, I broke off. At this time the ME 109 was smoking and an unidentified piece flew off his ship. Considering the altitude, speed and angle of dive of the ME 109, I did not believe he could pull out. As I leveled off I looked back and saw an explosion on the ground. I claim one ME 109 destroyed." His claim was verified by the flight's element leader, Capt Harry P. Wagner.

But in the melee, 1st Lt. Harry W. Hohl in P-47D-22, s/n 42-25567, and F/O Edwin S. Humphreys, Jr., in P-47D-16, s/n 42-76081, went missing and did not return to base. A third flight from the squadron spotted four FW-190s west of Rouen at 6,000 feet, but did not pursue.

Meanwhile, the sector northeast of LeHavre covered by the 406th Fighter Squadron which arrived on station at 1615 heated up. At 1715, patrolling P-47s spotted enemy fighters firing rockets at Allied ships at Cabourg and went after them. 1st Lt. Charles E. Firestone described what happened: "While flying over Caen toward the coast at an altitude between 5 and 7,000 feet I called out seven bogies at three o'clock to Major Gray. They were firing rockets at shipping near Cabourg. They fired the rockets from about 5,000 feet and made left hand climbing turns 90 degrees away from their target."

Lt. Firestone continued: "Major Gray turned after them. They continued their attack on the shipping unaware of our approach and I could see that they were FW-190s. Then they saw us and in a bank made a climbing turn toward the overcast. I started firing at one of the planes at 500 yards and (saw) strikes and flashes all over the plane before he was out of sight. I had followed into the overcast and when I turned out of it I could not find Major Gray, so I headed home. I claim one FW-190 damaged." Major Gray also claimed one of the FW-190s as probably destroyed.

Zooming up and out of the clouds, some five minutes later another group of enemy fighters was spotted and engaged, and Maj. Rockford Gray from group staff, flying with the 406th, was able to shoot down two FW-190s. Then another FW-190 got onto his tail, but in Gray's evasive maneuvers the German fighter crashed into the ground.

Also at 1715, another flight of the 406th spotted a pair of FW-190s near Fecamp. Capt. Uno Salmi shot one down, and reported the engagement as follows:

"The squadron was patrolling the eastern flank of the assault area. I was leading Largo Blue Flight. We were flying at about 25,000 feet just south of Fecamp when Lt. Augarten, my wingman, called out two FW-190s behind and below us. I broke to the left, Lt. Chappas leading the second element, and Lt. Meade wingman, broke to the right. One FW-190 turned after Lt. Chappas' element. One turned on my tail, but was driven off and pursued by Lt. Augarten.

"I made a right turn after the first FW-190 closing in on the turn to about 300 yards before firing using a 30 degree deflection and observed a heavy concentration of strikes along the right wing. I closed in to 150 yards firing continuously and the right wing of the FW-190 came off. I could see hits along the fuselage and cockpit. It exploded in the air and crashed near Goderville. I did not see the pilot bail out. I claim one FW-190 destroyed." His victory was witnessed and verified by Lt. Chappas.

Meanwhile, Lt. Rudolph Augarten, joined by Lt. Robert R. Meade, pursued the other FW-190 which had attacked his flight leader. "He broke off his attack (on Capt Salmi) and headed for the deck flying about one hundred and fifty degrees and went straight out. I could see that his rudder was painted yellow and body green. I gave it full throttle and boost and went after him pursuing for forty miles, but I could never get closer than 700 yards. When I saw that I couldn't catch him I fired even though he was out of range, firing about eight hundred rounds. I saw no strikes."

Ever farther from the beachhead and consuming precious fuel, Augarten reluctantly gave up the pursuit, and he and Meade began their return for home at low level. But Meade had some kind of problem and could not complete the return of base; he bailed out 20 miles south of the Isle of Wight. Augarten noted a vessel approaching him and noted the location to report back at base.

Thus, concluded the 371 FG's first day of air combat. The group claimed four FW-190s and one Me-109 destroyed, and four FW-190s probably destroyed, and achieved their purpose of defending the beachhead from enemy air attack.

It was a somewhat painful day with four pilot losses. But as things turned out, the group only lost one pilot permanently in the air battles of June 8, F/O Edwin S. Humphreys, Jr., who remains missing to this day. Two others, F/O Bob Izzard and 1st Lt. Harry Hohl were able to successfully evade with the help of the French Underground, and returned to England by August, while one, Lt. Meade, was picked up in the English Channel by a British destroyer and returned.

There were many more aerial engagements between the 371FG and the German Luftwaffe in the days and months ahead. The group ultimately received credit for 71 aerial victories in World War II. No doubt the experience gained in this first air combat on June 8, 1944 helped them in those future battles, and made this day important in 371FG and 142FW history.