LOW-LEVEL HELL
by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver

Copyright © 2011 by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver


December 15, 1944 dawned cloudy and cold over the Allied airfield at Venlo, Holland. Among the many American and RAF units based there was the 373rd Fighter Group, which had been flying P-47D Thunderbolts on ground-support missions since its inaugral mission over France on May 8, 1944. Since July 3, the group had been based on the Continent during the battles in northwestern Europe that summer and fall of the final year of the war.

At mail call that morning, 1st Lieutenant John D. Rutherford, of the 411th Fighter Squadron, received a letter from his first cousin, Bobby Grant, a member of the 78th Infantry Division, now based near Venlo in what would become, within twenty-four hours, the center of the Battle of the Bulge. Rutherford hadn't seen his cousin since he had been drafted in 1942, so he decided to try to visit the front. The group commander had forbidden pilots of the wing to drive in view of several fatalities back when they'd been based near Rheims, in the champagne country, so Rutherford stopped by the group operations office to see if there was a chance of catching a ride. There was, but only that afternoon. Rutherford was already assigned to the afternoon mission, dive-bombing a German artillery unit in the vicinity of Jackerath, just across the Roer River, a few miles west of Dusseldorf. Rutherford talked Captain Sam Marshall, the operations officer, into assigning him instead to the morning mission that was set to take off within the hour, so he could see his cousin that afternoon. To get the change, he had to accept assignment as "Tail-End Charlie."

"By that time, I'd flown forty-five combat missions without so much as a dent in my airplane, so, like most twenty-year-olds who don't know any better, I figured I was immortal, that there was nothing the Germans could do to me that I had to worry about. This was in spite of the fact that the unit was losing five or six pilots a month. Thus, with a standard assignment of twenty-eight pilots, we had already gone through one-hundred-percent casualties." Rutherford felt good that he would be flying wing to 1st Lieutenant John J. "Jack" Reynolds, his best friend since flight school, with whom he had joined the 373rd as a replacement pilot in early August.

"At about 1100, we arrived over Jackerath and could see the positions of the artillery unit in the center of the town. We had three flights of four planes each. As you dove, you fired your eight .50-calibers to keep their heads down, then dropped your two 500-pounders from about 3,500 feet. If you were further forward in the formation, as you pulled out and presented the Germans with a nice target, the guy right behind you was opening fire, which kept them down long enough to get you safely out of the area. When you flew tail-end Charlie, you were all alone when you pulled out; they could come out of their holes and start shooting. The best way to confuse them was to change speed, direction, and altitude during pull-out."

Rutherford rolled into his dive, right behind Reynolds. "There was considerable smoke and fire in the town. I aimed for the edge of the area, where I saw wagons and trucks parked. As I pulled off the target, I made a steep climbing turn to the left, so I could see where my bombs hit. I held a predictable course just long enough for the Germans to fire four 88mm flak guns simultaneously. They had cut the fuses just right, because I was bracketed by four terrific explosions. I looked at my wings, and saw what looked like several hundred holes. Suddenly the cockpit filled with black smoke; I could barely see the instrument panel. I immediately went to full oxygen, but I must have taken a hit in the system, because I was still choking. The only instrument I could see was the altimeter, which read a steady 5,000 feet. I could feel the plane had slowed and was on the edge of a stall-spin if I didn't get some speed. I pushed the stick forward to no effect. I turned and looked back, but I couldn't see the tail surfaces.”

The squadron leader, Captain Richard Gibian, heard Rutherford's radio call: "Butcher Leader, this is Yellow Four. I've been hit!" Gibian looked around and spotted Rutherford's mortally wounded Thunderbolt below, headed toward the Roer River, which was the front line in that area. "Roger, Yellow Four. I see you," he replied. “You are trailing a lot of black smoke. Stay on course. You're headed toward friendly territory. Stay with her till you cross the river, and then bail out."

"Roger, Butcher Leader," Rutherford replied.

Jack Reynolds flew low through the smoke and suddenly saw his friend, above and to the right. Just then, flames shot out the turbo exhaust. "I remembered a training film we had seen, where they said that in that situation the Thunderbolt had thirty seconds before it would blow up," he recalled. “I screamed, ‘Johnny! Bail out! Johnny! Bail out!’

When Rutherford heard his friend's voice, he didn't have to be told twice. "I immediately pulled the handle that jettisoned the canopy, unhooked my seat belt and shoulder harness, and crawled over the side of the cockpit. I dived off the wing so as to avoid hitting the tail. As soon as I was clear of the plane, I pulled the ripcord. Almost immediately after my parachute opened, my airplane exploded. It fluttered down in four or five big pieces: two wings, the tail, and engine with the cockpit still attached. The main gas tank had exploded. We sat on that in the cockpit. My face was singed, because I had been in the middle of the conflagration."

To the nearby Reynolds, it looked like his friend had been killed before he could bail out. Then he saw Rutherford and his parachute come out of the ball of flame, right over the river. The wind caught the parachute, and Rutherford drifted toward the east bank—enemy territory. Tracers from German 20mm and 37mm light flak came up, and several rounds seemed to go through the descending canopy. Rutherford's body didn't move as he hung in the harness. Flak then came up around Reynolds's Thunderbolt, so he had his own worries about avoiding his friend's fate.

"My parachute did not fit well, and when the ’chute opened, the chest buckle rode up and struck me in the mouth, badly splitting my lower lip," Rutherford recalled. "I had never planned on using my parachute. I always thought that if I got hit, I could manage to crash-land the P-47 and walk away from the wreckage. When I realized I was drifting toward the German side of the river, I tried to use my risers to change direction, but the wind was too strong. As I descended, I looked for a forest in which I might hide, and I planned which way to run when I landed. The silence of my descent really surprised me. After all the noise of getting hit—all the smoke, and the explosion—the silence was stunning."

As he neared the ground, Rutherford unfastened his harness and held on to the risers. He did not want to become entangled in the canopy. He hit and rolled, letting go. "I got up and started running toward the woods, but I saw German soldiers coming for me. When they surrounded me, I holstered my .45 and raised my hands.

“In those days, I smoked, so I took out my cigarette case and passed it around. I took the first one and they each took one. Surprisingly, they gave me the case back with a few cigarettes in it. It wasn't until I took my first drag on that cigarette and saw blood on it that I realized I'd been injured in the bailout."

To the Germans, the baby-faced Rutherford didn't look a day over sixteen. They didn't believe him when he told them he was an "oberleutnant". "I was fortunate they didn't kill me. A few P-47 pilots shot down on the front lines were executed by German soldiers who had suffered casualties at their hands." In town, Rutherford had the opportunity to see the results of his work. "They were new troops, brought in for the Battle of the Bulge, which began that night, and I was the first American soldier they had ever seen. They were still putting out fires and hauling away dead horses and men."

He was taken to the headquarters, a farm house he knew was going to be the main target of the afternoon strike. "Fortunately, before I had to decide whether or not to tell them to save myself, two members of the Volkssturm showed up to take me back to the rear. The three of us traveled for five days before they got me to the main interrogation center in Frankfurt am Main. I ended up in Stalag Luft I, where Colonel Hub Zemke was the senior officer for the whole camp, and Lieutenant Colonel Gabby Gabreski, the European Theater’s high-scoring ace—was in command of North Compound III, where I stayed."

That he bailed out and survived made Rutherford one of the lucky ones in the Ninth Air Force's Thunderbolt units. Operating at low altitude, right in the front lines, where flak was heavy, many Thunderbolt pilots died in their airplanes. Every one of the P-47 units involved in the fight across Europe after the invasion suffered more than 100 percent casualties in killed, wounded, and captured during the ten months between D-Day and V-E Day. The "Jabos" (for Jagdbomber, or fighter-bomber), as they were called by their German Army enemies, fought the toughest war of any group of American fighter pilots.

*

While there were more than a few moments of sheer terror to be faced by a Thunderbolt pilot, not all of them happened under enemy fire. Rutherford remembered an incident that was both terrifying and hilarious in the same moment. "We had a replacement pilot named Ted Buckley in the 411th Squadron who loved French champagne, cognac, you name it. One morning, after a long night in Brussels, he was assigned to make a ‘test hop.’ He did it, breathing pure oxygen to get the cobwebs out of his brain. Upon landing, he allowed one wheel to get off the runway and hit a crater, and the P 47 flipped on its back, burying the top of the canopy in the dirt so he couldn't get out. A group of us ran out to help. We found him drenched with gasoline, hanging upside down in his harness, cursing like a fiend. Before we had time to do anything, Lieutenant Ramon Franzalia, from group headquarters, ran in under the wing, drew his .45 automatic, pointed it at Buckley's head, and said, "Don’t' worry, Buck, if it starts to burn I'll shoot you!" The rest of us lifted the tail, opened the canopy, and released ol’ Buck. He got out, swore at Franzalia, and lunged at him but fell down. Franzalia took off running and wasn't seen for two days, until ol’ Buck had cooled down."

Rutherford joined the 373rd when the group was based at Advanced Landing Ground A-13, a temporary front-line air base outside of Bayeaux. Shortly after, the unit moved to A-29 outside St. James, Brittany. The runway was sited such that on takeoff, the Thunderbolts flew directly over the famous medieval abbey fortress of Mont St. Michel, which stood on an island just off the Breton coast. "Circling that at a thousand feet twice a day was a great way to see it," Rutherford remembered. That September, the 373rd moved to A-69, just outside Rheims, where the three squadrons were based in a chateau, a small hotel, and a country inn. "This was the champagne country, and we took full advantage of that fact. We in the 411th were at the hotel. Our bathroom facilities were primitive, but the chateau had a big beautiful marble bathroom with a sunken tub. Once they had the hot water working, we were allowed to use it. Of course, there was always a line. To while away the time, we would sit on the floor leaning up against the marble walls, and nip from the bottles of champagne we each had. If the wait was longer than a couple of hours, we had so much wine in us we were no longer interested in bathing. I got snockered twice in that bathroom without ever getting near the tub."

The fields the Thunderbolts flew from were generally temporary, a short runway that might have been surfaced with pierced steel planking, or just dirt. When a P-47 pilot sat at the end of a 3,500-foot runway, with a full ammo load, two 500-pound bombs and a 110-gallon drop tank, successful takeoff could be problematic, especially if it had rained recently. Rutherford can still recite the Rules for Takeoff that were posted at the operations office:
  1. Line up on the runway with the canopy open.
  2. Stand on the brakes.
  3. Pull the stick all the way back.
  4. Push the throttle, mixture, prop control, and turbo to the fire wall.
  5. When the tail comes off the ground, ease off the brakes and push the stick forward so you are moving with the tail in the air.
  6. With one hand on the throttle quadrant,
  7. With one hand on the bomb release,
  8. With one hand on the wheel retract handle,
  9. With one hand on the cowl flap closer handle,
  10. With one hand on the elevator trim wheel,
  11. With one hand on the safety belt release,
  12. With one hand on the water injection button,
  13. With one hand, cross yourself.
  14. When you reach the end of the runway, ease the stick back and retract the wheels. You should be airborne. Rutherford recalled, "There was a very familiar sight at most strips whenever a shot-up P-47 would crash-land. Usually, the pilot would jump out and signal he was okay. Before the dust had settled, an enterprising crew chief would be making off with the canopy for his plane. The instruments would go next, and the airplane would be stripped before the salvage crew got there. It beat requisitioning parts and waiting forever to get them."
When an accident happened on one of these strips, flight operations were cancelled until the wreckage was cleared. For those in the air, this meant finding another small, crowded airfield lacking radio control to land at. As Rutherford recalls, "We came back one time to find our strip inoperative and were vectored to a neighboring strip, about thirty miles away. The home group was trying to land, along with another stranded group of P-47s. We had no radio contact with the controller, so we all got in a tight landing pattern to try and get on the ground. I recall flying close formation with several strange P-47s on the cross-wind and approach legs. The strip was too narrow to take more than one at a time, so the one lucky pilot who was closest to the ground at the decisive moment would put down. The rest had to go around again. The ceiling was about one thousand and dropping. There was a small church with a steeple and cross about half a mile from the end of the runway we were landing on. One Thunderbolt managed to knock off the cross, but it landed safely. Then another P-47 hit the steeple and knocked a few feet off it, and he landed safely. A third hit the steeple and reduced it to about half its original height, then landed safely. Thunderbolts were tough to take that and still land! When I got down, there was no place to park, so I maneuvered past a 55-gallon drum in the middle of a taxiway. As soon as I did that, I realized why it was there: they had just poured fresh concrete on the taxiway. Both main wheels settled in the concrete about eight inches. I shut down and went to look for a tow, but they couldn't get to me for about an hour. I dug the wet concrete away from the wheels to minimize any damage. The ground crew had to run their tractor through the fresh concrete and were not happy about the situation. They were so disgusted they wouldn't help me clean off the wheels. Next morning, I took off with no trouble! I've always wondered if the Republic engineer who designed that landing gear knew it was concrete-proof."

Occasionally, war could become completely absurd. There was one particularly memorable mission where the group C.O. was leading a squadron of sixteen P-47s on an armed recon flight. Each P-47 carried three 500 pound bombs and a full load of 500 rounds per gun. After cruising over France for two hours without seeing anything, someone spotted a lone German on a motorcycle high-tailing it down a country lane.

"In desperation, the C.O. sent one flight down to drop one 500-pounder on the motorcycle. The pilot missed. Then each man in the first flight came around and dropped one 500-pounder on the motorcycle. All three missed. Then they each went back and dropped the remaining two bombs. They all missed. The motorcycle was still speeding though the French countryside.

"Then each came back and made a strafing run at the motorcycle. They missed again. The next three flights came down in turn and did the same thing, and they all missed! Just count it up: 1,500 pounds of bombs each, 4,000 rounds of .50-caliber each. Sixteen P-47s made a total of forty-eight passes, dropping 24,000 pounds of bombs, and firing off 64,000 rounds from 128 machine guns. And they all missed! And all they were shooting at was one lousy German on one lousy motorcycle. He must have been the luckiest guy in the whole German Army."

Looking back on his experience, Rutherford says "If I hadn't been flying the Thunderbolt, I would never have survived being shot down, so that I could survive the war." No better compliment can be paid to a combat airplane.