by Robert J. Goebel

Copyright © 1991 by Robert J. Goebel

My first real baptism of fire came on April 21, 1944, with the first visit of the 31st Fighter Group to the Ploesti oil fields of Rumania. The milk runs were over.

During the briefing, all eyes were on that red string stretched across the huge map on the front wall. It ran from the spur of the Italian boot easterly across the Adriatic, across Yugoslavia to the bomber rendezvous point, and ended finally above Bucharest_almost 600 miles. No one in the group had ever flown that kind of mission before, particularly in a formation of forty-eight aircraft. The German war machine had to have gasoline and lube oil, and most of it came from the Balkans, from Ploesti. The oil fields as well as the extensive refineries that supported them had to be destroyed, even though they were American-owned. We dutifully jotted down the compass headings and times. In addition, I wrote down the engine start, or PT. PT was a term carried over from the group's Spitfire days, when the start and ignition booster buttons were side by side and had to be pushed simultaneously. PT meant Push Tits.

The intelligence briefer took the stage and talked about flak installations and concentrations of enemy fighters in the immediate vicinity of the target. His wording was a masterpiece of hedging worthy of the best Philadelphia lawyer. A statement such as "Sixty-three large-caliber antiaircraft guns are believed to be in the area south of the target" always set me to wondering. Believed by whom? And did he really believe that there were sixty-three, or was that a nice number somewhere between fifty and a hundred? I had the feeling that someone was trying to measure a fly speck to three decimal places with a yardstick. Granted, intelligence work was an inexact business, and I am sure that, if any better information was available, we would have gotten it. Still, I waited_in vain, as it turned out_for someone, just once, to stand up on that stage and say, "I don't have a damned clue as to what you're going to run into up there."

The forecast was for bad weather all the way to the target, but that was nothing new either. In the absence of reliable data, I think the weatherman played safe and called for bad weather everywhere. That way he was in a position to take the "I told you so" route if the weather was stinko. Or he could take credit for surprisingly fine conditions, as if he had had something to do with the improvement. At the end of the briefing, we piled into the several jeeps available for the ride to the airdrome and squadron operations.

In the operations tent, the aircraft assignments were posted. As always, each pilot noted the location and marking of the aircraft he was to follow out of the parking area. Thorsen went over the flight positions again and discussed where he wanted the other three flights. The 308th was the lead squadron today, so he would also lead the group. Each squadron was to put up sixteen aircraft and two spares, which were to turn back at the Yugoslavian coast if no one aborted. In the standard formation, the sixteen Mustangs were grouped into four flights of four aircraft each. The lead flight was called Red Flight, and its supporting flight was Yellow; the second section consisted of Blue, and it was supported by Green Flight. As before, I was Thorsen's wingman, so my call sign was Border Red Two.

Lam, the squadron intelligence officer, issued each of us two small packets that could just fit into flight-suit pockets. One was an escape/evasion kit, which contained some concentrated food bars, Benzedrine, a morphine syringe, and other like bits and pieces. The other was a package of used and rumpled money of the countries we were to fly over. There was a little more fiddling around, and then it was time to go. I walked out to my machine in a highly excited state, heart thumping, but I also felt elated and full of expectation. No more milk runs. No more silhouettes, like the aircraft recognition exercises. Now I was going to see the real thing.

The pre-flight check was a cursory, tire-kicking affair. Then I had to urinate, except it was the second time in two minutes and, in spite of the urge, I was able to manage only a few drops. The crew chief helped me into my bulky RAF Mae West life vest and parachute harness. Then, when I was in the cockpit, he held the shoulder straps so I could thread the ends onto the lap belt and cam it down. I felt as if I had to go again, but I knew nothing would come of it, even if I did get down and try. So I made my cockpit check, picked out Nightshade, and concentrated on its propeller until it started to move. I cranked up; gave the chocks-out signal; and, when the crew chief was safely seated on the wing, moved out and fell in behind Thorsen as he essed his way toward the end of the runway. The long nose of the Mustang made forward visibility very poor, and with sixteen aircraft kicking up dust, it was absolutely essential to keep essing and watching the mechanic on the wing for hand signals. At last we were at the runway. The crew chief jumped down and gave me a highball_a hand salute_ and I was pulling out into take-off position. As soon as Thorsen was halfway down the runway, I wiped my sweaty palms on my flight-suit thighs; made a rolling mag check; and pushed the throttle to the gate, 61 inches. I was off.

I closed rapidly on Thorsen and tucked in tightly, sneaking an occasional glance beyond him at the rest of the squadron as each succeeding airplane caught up and dropped into position. Finally, the major rolled out on course. When I loosened my position so I could look around a little, I got a real thrill: Our squadron was in perfect formation and, on either side above us, the other two squadrons were equally well formed. The Adriatic sparkled below and was dotted with the white sails of the Italian fishing boats. As we gained altitude, the Italian coast gradually fell away. Ahead to the east, a buildup of cumulus clouds marked the Yugoslavian coastline. Soon we were at our cruising altitude. As the weather deteriorated, the squadrons began to maneuver around the towering buildups while trying to stay in contact. My attention was completely devoted to keeping station on Thorsen's wing, so I had only a sketchy idea of what was going on. Unbeknownst to any of us, Fifteenth Air Force Headquarters had recalled the mission because of the weather, but the B-24s and the 31st had failed to get the word and pressed on to the target.

Rendezvous with the bombers came off without a hitch. Each squadron took up position over the bomber stream, flights scissoring back and forth, trying to stay out of the clouds but without overrunning the slow-flying B-24s. Shortly after rendezvous, someone broke radio silence to call out enemy fighters. I tried in vain to spot them by sneaking quick glances away from Thorsen's machine, but I couldn't see anything except clouds and more Mustangs. The next thing I knew, the traffic on the R/T increased in volume and intensity to bedlam; everyone was cursing and shouting at once. "Here they come! Break, break right! Passing under you. Watch out, four o'clock level, Blue Leader. A whole bunch of the sons o' bitches. . . . Red Leader, break right! You got him. You got him! Where the hell are you, Green Four?"

The shrill cacophony in my headset made my hair stand on end, but I was totally absorbed in staying with Thorsen as he went through some very high-G maneuvers. My vision was blurry from the stresses. Clouds and bits of the horizon went by in very strange places. I saw what I took to be tracers going over my wing between Thorsen and me, and I wanted to shout a warning. But I couldn't think of the right words to call a break. I just choked.

After a few minutes, which seemed like hours, it was all over, and we were trying to re-form. I was soaked with sweat and in such a keen state of sensitivity that the first sound of a routine radio call made me jump perceptibly. I finally got my nerves under control, but I felt nauseated as we set course for home. I was still twitchy when we started our descent and, after I pitched out and made my pattern, I just drove it down on the wheels and let it roll.

All the crew chiefs were waiting in a knot at the end of the runway. As each one's aircraft came in, he mounted the wing for the taxi ride back to the parking area. When I was chocked, I shut down, unbuckled, and headed for the operations tent for debriefing. Luckily, no one was interested in quizzing me. I really hadn't seen much of anything except the side of Thorsen's Nightshade, and I would have been embarrassed to admit it. I found out that the group had engaged two gaggles of thirty aircraft each and had destroyed sixteen of them. We had lost four of our own. One of the lost pilots was Jackson, a classmate from Moore Field who had been assigned to the 309th when we had come up from Telergma, three weeks earlier. He was the first combat casualty of our Panama bunch but certainly not the last.

The 308th had done well, bagging four of the attackers and getting four probables into the bargain. Claude got one of the probables, which bettered Doctor Tom's claim of a damage three days earlier. I was feeling down, having seen nothing and shot at nothing. One of our Panama guys was going to get a confirmed victory one of these days, and I just knew that it wasn't going to be me. Lying in my sack later that evening, I thought about the events of the day and tried to sort things out. I could see one thing clearly: Flying such close formation that I wouldn't get lost or separated kept me from doing my job, which was watching and keeping my leader's tail clear. I was going to have to loosen up and take my chances on staying with him. I also recognized that, in the heat of battle, there was no time to think about things. The time to do the thinking was on the ground. If I didn't do something instinctively, it wasn't going to get done. Anticipation was the thing. Be ready. I had to act without hesitation when the time came. Get the gun and sight switch on with the first bogey call. Get the tank jettison switch armed early so that the drop tanks would be away a split second after the command. Be ready for a hung tank. Be ready to go mixture auto-rich, full throttle, and RPM. And above all, be ready to call a break instantly when bounced by enemy aircraft, using the right call sign so I didn't scatter every other flight in the sky.

On the next mission two days later I was scheduled to fly on Johnson's wing as Green Four. I didn't know whether I had been graduated or demoted. No explanations or comments were forthcoming, so I chose to believe that Thorsen had okayed me for general wing flying and was taking on a new guy to fly his wing. Johnson had the reputation for being a tiger in the air, so I knew I would not want for action. We were going to Wiener Neustadt, a modern city near Vienna where Me-109s were assembled. That probably meant that we were poking a stick in the hornet's nest. Vienna or Wien, as it was known to the Austrians was 450 air miles from San Severo, almost due north. The direct route would take us across the Adriatic and over the Yugoslavian coast just west of Split. After crossing the coastal mountains, we would pass almost over Zagreb, in the plain of Croatia. The very large and unmistakable Lake Balaton would lie in the distance to the east, in Hungary. Much nearer, almost beneath our track, would be the city of Graz, Austria, only a scant 75 miles from Wiener Neustadt.

The takeoff and join-up were routine. As the group climbed northward over the sea, I had ample opportunity to look around. Forty-eight airplanes plus six spares made a formidable force and took up a good part of the sky. I was glad that I was a part of it instead of having to look at it from an Me-109 or FW-190 cockpit.

Up near the Yugoslavia-Austria border, bogies were called out at one o'clock, slightly below. This time, I got a good look and saw about twelve Me-109s passing from one o'clock toward three, fairly close. As the squadron started to turn into them, Johnson let go his tanks, cut sharply inside our lead flight, and started down after them. I just had time to sneak a look at our lead flight on the outside as I rolled to follow Johnson. I was horrified to see the rest of the squadron turn back to the original heading, leaving us hung out to dry. I shot a glance back at Johnson. He was already getting away from me, turning in a tight vertical bank and closing rapidly on a 109. I pulled it in as hard as I could. But, if I was to stay with him, I knew I was going to have to keep reefing it in. The 109s on the outside of us, which Johnson was expecting the lead section of the squadron to engage, could easily drop in behind us. But I figured that, while pulling four or five Gs, I was relatively safe. Hauling back on that stick for all I was worth and in a semicrouch, I was tightening my stomach muscles tightening all my muscles trying to hold my head up against the vicious, unrelenting force of magnified gravity. I no longer knew if I was in the same piece of sky as Johnson; the positive Gs were draining the blood from my head and I was sightless. After another second or two, I eased the back pressure on the stick until I got some vision back, hoping Johnson would still be in front of me. No joy. That part of the sky was empty. At eight o'clock, a mile or two away, I saw a parachute. A good bit closer, two aircraft were coming at me. They had no deep central air scoop but two flat, shallow radiators under the wings and close to the fuselage, exactly like the recognition silhouette. They were unmistakably Me-109s! I went to War Emergency 67 inches manifold pressure and made for a bank of clouds over on my left. I beat them into the clouds, a stratus deck that was fairly smooth inside. I was safe for the moment; visibility wasn't 20 feet.

If I had chased someone into cloud cover, I would pop up on top, fly straight ahead, and watch for him to come out. Expecting them to do the same, I pulled the throttle back and started a turn, rolling out when I had reversed course. After a couple of minutes I pulled up into the sunlight and made a violent 90 left and then a 90 right to clear myself. I was alone. I had no idea where they had gone, but I really didn't care. Now what? I decided I would go the short distance to the target and join on someone rather than risk flying all the way home alone. Setting course for the target area, I climbed back up to the group's altitude, turning often to look aft and constantly scanning the sky for those fast-moving black dots. The target area could easily be spotted by the dark cloud of flak bursts, and the heavy bombers could be seen from miles away.

I moved in gingerly toward the first flight of Mustangs I came upon. The large letters WZ on the side told me they were from a sister squadron, the 309th. The leader gave me a short glance, raised his gloved hand to acknowledge my presence, and went on about his business. I felt like the lost kitten that had found its mother. But I couldn't help wondering what had happened to Johnson. Was that his chute or a German pilot's?

After I had landed and parked, I walked slowly toward the ops tent for debriefing, dreading the interrogation and my admission that I had lost my element leader. I told my story to Lam as completely as I could while he took notes. Johnson wasn't back and no one had reported seeing him. Two of the older heads who had completed their tour in Spitfires and were waiting to go home seemed interested in the fact that I had outrun the 109s in level flight. I asked one of them he was the squadron's leading scorer, with six victories if that had been the wrong thing to do. He laughed and said, "I guess not." I didn't sense any of the reproach from the rest of the pilots that I had expected. True, I hadn't deliberately left Johnson to take a shot or some such thing; still, I did lose him, and he wasn't back yet. Some of the older pilots questioned his action in dropping tanks and getting sucked into a fight before bomber rendezvous.

I went outside, sat on a wooden bench, and watched the late afternoon sky for one more Mustang. After a half hour, Lam came out and asked me if I wanted a ride back to the housing area. Everyone else had already gone, so there were just the two of us in the jeep. We rode back in silence. I felt pretty bad.

Two other squadron pilots besides Johnson failed to return: Trafton and Hughes. Although no one knew it then, Trafton was wounded, but he had successfully bailed out and was to return to Italy three months later. Hughes was dead. He had remarked to Lam before going out to his airplane, "Isn't it a beautiful day to get shot down?" Did he have a premonition, or was it just an offhand remark? Who knows. But he was right about one thing: It had been a beautiful day.