SAVE THE BOMBERS
by Eric Hammel
Copyright © 1997 by Eric Hammel
1st Lieutenant FRANK GERARD, USAAF
503d Fighter Squadron, 339th Fighter Group
Annaberg, Germany—September 11, 1944
Francis Robert Gerard was born in Belleville, New Jersey, on July 11, 1924. He graduated from high school in June 1941, and on October 22, biked from his home in Newark to the recruiting station in Lyndhurst. It was his intention to enlist in the Marine Corps, but he was arrested at the entrance to the building by a sign depicting Uncle Sam pointing his finger and emblazoned with the question, "Can You Fly?" A crack athlete and a top scholar, young Gerard said to himself, Why not?, and proceeded to the Army Air Forces recruiter. He passed the written exam with ease, but when he returned for his physical the next day, he could not get the recruiter to commit to an early departure for training, so he threatened to join the Marines. At this point, the teenager was ushered into the office of a full colonel, who questioned him on various aspects of his life. At last, the colonel promised to have the young pilot recruit sworn in on October 26 and on his way as soon as possible. The colonel's word was golden—Gerard was sworn into the Army on October 26, 1942, and on his way to training on December 18.
Second Lieutenant Frank Gerard, age nineteen, emerged from flight training with class 43-H at Craig Field, Alabama, on August 30, 1943. After completing his training with a replacement training unit, he was assigned to the 339th Fighter-Bomber Group, which had been formed as a light dive-bomber unit in mid-1942 and now was undergoing training as a P-39 fighter-bomber unit at Rice Field, California.
The group was shipped to England in March 1944 and there it transitioned to P-51s for escort duty with the VIII Fighter Command's 66th Fighter Wing. The group flew its first mission, a fighter sweep ahead of the heavy bombers, on April 30, 1944.
First Lieutenant Frank Gerard scored his first aerial victory, a Bf-109 he downed with only 42 bullets, while escorting bombers near Gotha, Germany, on August 16, 1944.
I flew my entire combat tour as a member of the 503rd Fighter Squadron, 339th Fighter Group, based at Station 378, Fowlmere, England.
On September 11, 1944, we were awakened early by the many B-17s and B-24s droning overhead to complete their join-ups in the murky weather prevalent in England at that time of the year. I remember so well that it was pretty foggy that morning, and so I hoped that I would be able to sleep a little while longer. That was not to be, so my five Nissen hut buddies and I donned our damp flying suits and sloshed through the mud to have our sumptuous breakfast. Afterwards, we bicycled to the briefing hut to receive our mission for the day.
It was a typical briefing at the start, but when it came to the type of tactics that the bomber boxes were to employ that day enroute to Grimma, Germany, and how we were to effect the rendezvous and the escort procedures, I could sense the perking interest of my fellow pilots and operations officers. En route to the target near Leipzig, we were told, we would not use the normal formation of boxes in trail. Rather, the bomber boxes would fly basically line abreast into Germany and then wheel into trail at a designated point before the Initial Point (IP). We could only conclude that this method of approach was to confuse the German air defenses. And it did cause confusion, no doubt about it, but mostly on the part of the Eighth Air Force escorts, both P-51s and P-47s. When the time came for the Fortresses to wheel into position toward the IP, the 503d Fighter Squadron, with a total of fourteen Mustangs, was the only fighter unit in the proper position to offer protection to the many boxes of bombers.
While we were still en route to the target area, the Germans sent up several decoy Bf-109s to entice our fighter units away from the bomber force. Our squadron was led by Major John Aitken, an experienced fighter pilot. We stayed with the B-17s, ignored the decoys, and maneuvered toward the front of the scattered bomber formation.
When we were in the vicinity of Annaburg, I called in a mass of bandits, and Major Aitken gave the order to drop our external fuel tanks. It certainly was a frightening spectacle to spot the two gaggles of fighters approaching the bombers. The gaggles were composed of more than fifty enemy aircraft each, and the sight of them raised the hackles of my hair, as I am sure it did to the thirteen other Mustang pilots in our formation. I thought, This is it! However, we pressed on even though our instincts warned us that we would not return from this mission. But it was our duty to protect the bombers to the best of our daring and skill.
As the enemy aircraft approached the bomber force, we dove down and began the attack. At first, I didn't think of anything except trying to distract the 109s from their goal of destroying the B-17s by getting them to mix it up with us. To this end, I fired a burst in their general direction, but I was firing from out of range. This premature action had no effect upon the deadly determination of the 109s and 190s.
I was flying as the element lead in Major Aitken's flight, and initially I was slightly ahead of the others, in the nearest position to the enemy gaggles. After my futile attempt to distract the enemy I said to myself, Steady, boy. Concentrate on one at a time. Then I picked out a 109 that was about 300 yards out and crossing in front of me at about a 40-degree angle. He was the tail-end charlie of a flight of 109s.
I put all my football-passing and skeet-shooting experience to good use then. I gave him a good lead while aiming a little high, because of the distance. Then I gave him a short burst from my six .50-caliber machine guns. He blew up with coolant and flames streaming out. My wingman, 2d Lieutenant Raymond Mayer, saw him spin out with his wheels down and pieces flying off, so it was a confirmed victory. Scared as I was at the time, my lucky hits gave me a lot of confidence and elation.
I pressed on through the melee, and as we reached the American bombers, I maneuvered frantically to get in position while protecting my tail. All hell was breaking loose around me, and there were so many aircraft involved that it was difficult to distinguish friends from enemies, but thank God there were so many of them and few of us. I finally picked out an FW-190 that was in a slight dive. I got on his tail and gave him a short burst, and he immediately exploded. Captain James Robinson confirmed this kill. I then damaged another 109, but in the confusion of diving through the bomber formation—I swear that I could hear the rapid fire from the heavy armament of the B-17s, and the sky around me was filled with parachutes and pieces of debris flying through the air—I wasn't able to follow him to confirm this kill. Much remained to be done to assist the bomber crews and their aircraft.
Opening to max throttle, I attacked another 109 that was going down in a dive, but as I was positioning on him, I spotted two more 109s coming in on my tail. As we were already getting into a sort of Lufbery, I accelerated my turn and got it in so tight that I thought my G-suit would break me in half. (We were one of the pioneer groups to test the pneumatic G-suit, and I said at the time that I never wanted to fly combat in a fighter without wearing one.) Because of the benefits of the G-suit, I was able to twist my head without blacking out, and I was able to outmaneuver the two 109s. I was determined that they would never fight against our valiant bomber crews again.
I put that P-51 through every gyration it was designed for, and more. In fact, I snapped it around so forcefully that I was concerned about the wings coming off, but I gave it a go.
After two or three turns, I was on their tails. Though I was pulling a lot of Gs, I lined up on the nearer of the two 109s and gave him two or three short bursts. The pilot must have been amazed at this turn of events, for his previous target was now the aggressor—and was scoring hits all over his airplane. He blew up and started his final descent. I followed him in a steep dive and saw him spin into the ground.
While I was in this steep dive, Major Aitken passed me. He was on the tail of another 109, and he was getting serious strikes all over it. I pulled up because my speed was excessive, and this afforded me the opportunity to bounce another 109. I pressed the attack for what seemed like quite a while before I was in a position to fire. This 109 pilot was aggressive. He tried to lose me with various maneuvers and tactics, descending all the time. However, I was determined not to let this one fight another day. It was crazy up there at the time, but I got into position for a good deflection shot. When I was close enough I gave him a short burst, and he blew up and entered a crazy spin. As I pulled up in a tight turn to clear my tail and look for other enemy aircraft, I saw my 109 hit the ground. When he hit, he was still spinning.
Next, I spotted six more 109s break for the deck. I rolled after them, but I had only 110 gallons of gas left, so I broke off the attack, climbed to 15,000 feet, and began my long and lonely flight back to Fowlmere.
It had been a long day. The mission was seven hours and forty minutes, but adding the time for the fog-delayed takeoff, I was strapped into that Mustang for more than nine hours. My muscles and my mind were sorely challenged. I thought of a lot of different things that day, but most of all I was proud to be part of the 503d Fighter Squadron and thankful for the wisdom of Major Aitken for not being lured by the decoys, and for his dedication to protecting the bomber crews by following orders and not chasing across the skies for personal glory.
We did our best that day, but it was not good enough. Twelve B-17s went down in flames before other American fighters finally arrived to protect them on the flight home. I do not think I had the courage to be a bomber pilot over Germany. I had—and still have—the utmost respect for the valor and dedication of those brave crews.
The 503d Fighter Squadron shot down fifteen German fighters in that action, and we damaged many others. The 339th Fighter Group was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for its achievements on September 10 and 11, 1944, and I was awarded the Silver Star for "Gallantry in Action."
Frank Gerard was awarded four confirmed victories for the twelve-minute September 11 fight over Annaburg; he was a five-kill ace, and only a month past his twentieth birthday. He went on to down two Bf-109s, and damage a third, near Magdeburg on March 2, 1945; and shortly after being promoted to the rank of captain, he scored his eighth and final victory on March 18, 1945, when he downed an FW-190 near Dummer Lake.
After World War II, Frank Gerard served with the New Jersey Air National Guard while completing college. He earned his law degree in 1949, but his legal career was cut short when he was called to active duty during the Korean War. Thereater, he divided his time between various civilian pursuits, the New Jersey Air National Guard, and numerous stints on active duty with the Air Force, including a tour during the 1962 Berlin Crisis. He flew jet fighters until 1976 and retired from the Air Force several years later with the rank of major general.