Prize fighters

There's nothing in the world to equal the partnership a P-47 pilot feels for his ship when he's 25,000 feet up in that happy land. He's got his thoughts, his ammunition, and that's all. When a fighter pilot blazes into a dogfight, he's up there all alone, and there's no vocal encouragement, no one standing by in case some one takes a potshot. Fighter pilots of the Eighth Air Force are the guardian angels of the bombers, and the number of "missing" have dropped in number since these fast ships started escorting their bigger brethren across the Channel.

The Eighth Fighter Command may be said to have been born twice. First birth dates back to June, 1942, when the ground echelon of two fighter groups arrived in the European Theater of Operations (commonly called ETO.)

Combat training was initiated in June with the arrival of the air echelon of one of the original groups. Training was completed in August, and the unit moved to Southern England to operate under control of the British. As more echelons, arrived, they were trained, then sent to Africa for the coming invasion. This wholesale transfer of planes, equipment, and trained fighter pilots, meant a rebirth of the Command. In March, 1943, new groups arrived, and the P-47 was on hand to show its metal for the reborn Eighth Fighter Command. Starting with five officers and four enlisted men, Colonel Edward Anderson, of St Petersburg, Florida, received orders to form a new fighter group to fly the then untested P-47 Thunderbolt in the ETO. Newly commissioned officers with the sands of Miami still in their shoes, RAF-trained American pilots, enlisted men with but a few months training, added to the nucleus of the original staff. These "kindergarten" pilots started out flying the British Spitfires. When they returned to base, they transferred to the Thunderbolts for practice flights. On inclement days, Col Anderson taught his mixed group customs of the American service, close order drill, and military law. Many of the boys who joined the RAF before Pearl Harbor knew nothing whatever about the American Army.

More groups moved to the North African theater, but the famed Eagle squadron stayed in England to make the first exciting test with the new high-altitude Thunderbolt. Coming-out party for the P-47 was scheduled for March 10, 1943. Pilots universally weren't too enthusiastic about changing over from the Spit. There were still plenty of bugs in the new ship, and the sure-footed Spits gave pilots the impression that they were going to pilot wild horses. A seven-ton Stallion is hard to manage.

When the grey day came, Col Anderson was out in front, flying a P-47. By all the rules of the book, Col. Anderson was at least ten years beyond combat age — 39 years old. The "old man" of the fighter squadron acquitted himself well.

The usual bugs were eliminated from the ship by highly trained experts right in England. Foremost among the men credited with ironing out this ship was Lt Col Cass Hough of Plymouth, Michigan, who plunged that new plane towards the earth in the longest vertical power dive in aviation's entire history. At the time of the test flight, it is said that he plummeted earthwards for nearly five miles, faster than the speed of sound, or at a rate of more than 780 mph.

With the fighting ability of the Thunderbolt ascertained and with weather more favorable for missions over Nazi-occupied territory, target raids by bombers and box scores by the fighter steadily mounted.

Said Major General Frank O'D Hunter, former chief of the Eighth Fighter Command in a report to the high command:

"It is an accepted fact that while bombers are escorted by fighters, their losses are negligible, because enemy fighters might not attack at all, due to the threat of their presence. If they do attack they are either shot down or driven off, before they can do serious damage, and in addition they are oftimes broken up before they can make a planned and timed attack."

Although the first mission with the Thunderbolt was made in March, is it probably fair to say that operations really started in July, when sufficient groups were in operation to act as escorts for the Flying Fortresses on bombing missions.

At about this time, deep penetration was started, and it became necessary to use jettisonable auxiliary gasoline tanks to give the fighter airplanes the necessary range.

As the official communiques pour in since the day when Thunderbolt fighters started escorting bombers, there are fewer bombers in the "missing" column. There are more pilots returning to take up those ships again. USAAF Thunderbolts operating at a 4-1 ratio over German fighters. Experience, the best teacher in the world, has taught them how to play the game of which the only rule is "Be quicker than your opponent." These boys aren't supermen. They've got plenty of guts, they fly well, and they shoot straight.

On September 6, 1943, Major General William Kepner was named Commander of the Eighth Fighter Command. He holds practically every aeronautical rating for both fighter and heavier-than-aircraft. General Anderson puts his objective this way — the only way there is. "We want to throw the P-47 Thunderbolt at him so much he'll shiver and shake when he hears the name." Kepner was on the staff of the original GHQ air force; later he headed the Eighth Fighter Group at Langley Field, and was executive for the Air Defense Command, the beginning of the fighter command system now in effect.

Just a year ago, on January 1, 1943, the official New Year order read, "The Axis must be made to recognize our aircraft not alone by the insignia they bear, but by the relentless fury of their attack." In the past twelve months, those words have become reality. Now we have trained, experienced pilots; now we have one of the world's top fighter planes for these boys to work in; now it's the Allies who have the upper hand in air combat. And it's because those P-47s haven't been slouching on the job.

This article was originally published in the February, 1944, issue of Air News magazine, vol 6, no 1, pp 26-27.
The original article includes 11 photos.
Photos credited to USAAF, Signal Corps, International, Lockheed.

Photos:

Note: This article recounts the "supersonic" power dive of Lt Col Hough, attributing it to a P-47. The article "15 seconds to live" attributes the flight to a P-38.
—JLM