RECON PATROL
by Eric Hammel

Copyright © 1998 by Eric Hammel



2d Lieutenant LEE LARSON, USAAF

15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron
Dresden, Germany—April 8, 1945


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Leland Alsen Larson was born on April 10, 1923, and raised in Whittemore, Michigan. He enlisted in the Army Air Forces in early 1943. After earning his wings in February 1944, he was posted to a fighter school, where he mastered the P-40 and P-51. Because of his extraordinary eyesight, Lieutenant Larson was selected for the Air Forces Tactical Reconnaissance School in Meridian, Mississippi, from which he graduated in July 1944. Upon his arrival in England in December 1944, Lee Larson was assigned to the Ninth Air Force's 10th Photographic Reconnaissance Group—just in time to take part as a novice pilot in the Battle of the Bulge. After getting a few shots into a German fighter on January 14, 1945, Lieutenant Larson received his first victory credit on March 21, when he downed a long-nosed FW-190 over Eisenach, Germany. Three days later, on March 24, he downed a Bf-109, also over Eisenach. Larson shared in the downing of a German fighter on March 27 and again on March 28. He received a half credit for each of these victories, bringing his total score to three. On April 4, 1945, Larson shared in the destruction of a Ju-188 medium bomber that went down over Wittenburg. In every aerial combat to that point, it was Lee Larson who had first spotted the enemy planes.

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By April 8, 1945, I had been overseas for more than four months. At the time, I was a second lieutenant assigned to Flight B of the 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, a unit of the Ninth Air Force's XIX Tactical Air Command. The squadron was part of the 10th Photographic Reconnaissance Group. We flew in support of General George Patton's U.S. Third Army. At the time, the squadron was based at Trier, Germany; we were the first Air Forces squadron to fly off German soil. The runway was 2,900 feet long and paved, and it ran alongside the Moselle River.

Tactical reconnaissance missions were usually flown at 2,000 feet with two airplanes. The two planes usually flew well apart so that the wingman could provide good air coverage for the leader, who had to navigate and look for on enemy positions and movement on the ground. Because my eyesight was especially good, I flew a lot of deep-route missions, checking railroad lines, highways, airfields, V-2 rocket installations, and any other important physical features. Eleven of these missions were flown with Captain Clyde East, who became an ace on March 27, 1945, while flying with me. By April 8, 1945, the 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron had two other aces, Captain John Hoefker and 2d Lieutenant John Waits. Their success, and mine, was attributable to our good eyesight and the fact that we were out there all the time, flying low and looking for the enemy.

On April 8, 1945, I was again assigned to fly wing for Captain East. This was to be a deep-route mission to Dresden, Leipzig, and points in between. We were to check railroads, highways, airfields, and so forth.

We took off in two F-6Ds, which were P-51D Mustangs, each armed with six .50-caliber machine guns and equipped with a K-22 oblique camera mounted behind the seat armor plate and a K-24 vertical camera installed just behind the air scoop in the belly of the plane. The F-6D had a 1,520-horsepower Packard-Merlin-Rolls-Royce engine and a floating gunsight. In my opinion, it was the best damn airplane ever built. It took what I gave it.

Flying conditions and weather were excellent that morning. Northwest of Dresden, Germany, at 0800 hours, I spotted fifteen Ju-87 Stuka dive-bombers at 11 o'clock low, at approximately 500 feet of altitude. The Stuka formation was coming toward us from the east. I called the Stukas in to Captain East. I was hot to go after them, but East cautioned me that each had a 20mm cannon in the back seat that might be loaded for bear. This made sense to me, so I paused to see what East would do. But he was already zeroing in on the squadron leader. I followed and drew a bead on the number-three plane in the flight, which should have been flown by the second-in-command. Fortunately for us, the rear gunners had apparently expended their ammunition on some poor, hapless Russians. They were all turned around in their seats, probably listening to Axis Sally on the radio.

On the first pass we blew two of the Stukas out of the sky, just like that. Then we pulled up, just in case those rear gunners woke up and took action. To my amazement, all the remaining Stukas went from their stacked-right formation into a trail formation—one right behind the other. Now there was no way they could protect one another.

East went around again and pounced on one. I saw smoke and flames from that Stuka, and then I tried to "shoot the flock." I went straight along the formation from the rear to the front, firing short bursts at each Stuka in succession. I overshot every one of them until, finally, I was leading the German formation. East reminded me that I was going 125 miles per hour faster than the Stukas, which explained why I had overshot them.

I cut the throttle and dropped 20 degrees of flaps to slow down. That didn't do it, so I dropped 40 degrees of flaps. Finally, I had to drop 60 degrees of flaps to slow to their speed. Even then, I was coming up fast on the Stuka I had targeted. My floating gunsight settled on his fuselage and I started up the buzz saw. I saw pieces of the fuselage and left wing fly off, but at this point I had to pull up or collide with him. I'll bet it was the closest buzz job he ever saw. Frankly, I thought we were going to collide.

When I pulled up, I added a little throttle and pulled up 40 degrees of flaps, just in time to avoid a midair collision. When I looked down again, I saw that I was over a rail yard, where German troops on the ground were throwing the canvas off innumerable 20mm ack-ack cannon mounted on flatcars. I suddenly realized that being the hunted was not nearly as much fun as being the hunter. I pulled my flaps up all the way, threw the throttle past the emergency wire, and pulled straight up to 5,000 feet. When I got there, I looked for help from East. Just as I spotted him, my engine detonated and a ball of fire two feet in diameter came by the left side of the canopy. I had fed too much gas into the engine.

I was sure the German ack-ack gunners had me. It was the only time in seventy-seven combat missions that I panicked. I took hold of my bootstraps and rejoined East.

It couldn't have been a minute after I joined East that I spotted an He-111 twin-engine bomber underneath us, right on the deck. I called the Heinkel in to the East, and the team went to work. We'd been through this twin-engine bit on April 4, when we had shot down a Ju-188 near Wittenburg. As before, East took the left engine and I took the right. We shot the He-111 down in one easy pass from straight behind.

As we pulled out from the He-111, I spotted a Stuka that was attempting to land at a small airfield nearby. East took a chance that there wouldn't be any ack-ack at this field and rolled in to give the Stuka a burst. East wouldn't claim this one when we got back, but I saw the Stuka's left landing gear collapse. The Stuka hit the ground hard and I'll bet Hans at least get a headache from the impact.

As we flew on toward Leipzig, I spotted a Siebel Fh-104. This was a five-seat cabin monoplane the Germans used for hauling passengers. It was at 11 o'clock and level to us. I knew that I had expended my ammunition on the He-111. East thought he might be out, too, so at first we ignored the Siebel, which looked harmless. But, since the Siebel was going our direction anyway, East told me to cover him and he'd find out if there was a bullet and powder left in the old musket. I think I called East twenty-five or thirty times to tell him that he was clear, but East didn't acknowledge me once. If he wasn't clear, I didn't know what I could do with no bullets.

East kept getting closer and closer to the Siebel. I was beginning to think he was going to fly formation with the German, right into the Leipzig airport. Just then, however, I saw a string of tracers go into the Siebel's left wing. The German transport folded up like butterfly. Three men tried to parachute, but none made it as the transport went into tight spirals and crashed into a field.

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Lee Larson was given full credit for one of the Stukas and a shared credit for the He-111. This brought his total to five, making him an ace. Exactly a month later, at 2000 hours on May 8, 1945, 2d Lieutenant Lee Larson was on his seventy-seventh combat mission of the war when he scored his sixth and final aerial victory, an FW-190 he downed near Radnitz, Germany. It was the last German airplane but one downed over Europe in World War II, the 7,503rd credited to a United States Army Air Forces fighter pilot in the European Theater of Operations. It was also the last German plane downed by an American fighter ace.

Lee Larson returned to Michigan as soon as he was demobilized from the service at the end of the war. He passed away in 1990.