Memoirs of a P-51 Fighter Pilot
by Robert J. Goebel
When Bob Goebel left home to join the Army Air Corps in 1942, he was a 19 years old and a high-school graduate. The only previous time he had traveled far from his native Racine, Wisconsin, was an epic trip in the summer of 1940, when he and a pal had ridden the rails to Texas and back to visit two of Bob's brothers who were in the service.
Even during his weeks in Pre-flight training, young Goebel found that he felt at home in the service, and he looked forward to the great adventure on which he had embarked out of a sense of patriotism and yearning to see the wide world. Easygoing and quick to learn, Cadet Goebel worked his way steadily through the Basic, Primary, and Advanced phases of military flight training, and found in himself an aptitude for flight. However, like nearly all of his comrades, Goebel could not learn how to hit a flying target with the guns mounted on the trainers he flew. Nevertheless, he—and they—graduated to fighter school and, after earning their wings and commissions, were sent on to join an operational fighter unit—in Panama.
The months of rigorous operational flying in Panama seasoned Lieutenant Goebel and his young companions, and made better aviators of them, but it did little to advance their gunnery skills. When a new crop of novices arrived, Goebel and his companions found themselves on their way to Europe to join the fight. They wound up in North Africa in the Spring of 1944 with orders to join the 31st Fighter Group in Italy.
Just as Goebel and his young companions were about to join the leading fighter group in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations, the 31st turned in its British-made Spitfire fighters for new P-51 Mustang fighters. Within weeks, Bob Goebel had flown his first combat missions and had lost his element leader, who was shot down in a swirling dogfight.
But master the job he did. A steady succession of bomber-escort missions over southeastern Europe slowly and then more rapidly forced Lieutenant Goebel to settle in and master aerial gunnery and the mentally taxing high-speed dogfights in which he became engaged. At last, he shot down his first German fighter. And he advanced to positions of leadership, in due course leading the entire 31st Fighter Group deep into enemy territory. At length, he shot down a fifth German and thus became an ace—a Mustang Ace. And then he shot down three Germans in one day on a mission to Ploesti, Rumania. He flew to Russia and back, and supported the invasion of southern France. In the end, by September 1944, he had eleven confirmed victories to his credit and was one of the 308th Fighter Squadron's most respected combat leaders.
When he was sent home at the end of his combat tour, Captain Bob Goebel was not yet 22 years old.