Ken Beaton: June 6, 1944, the 75th anniversary
Suddenly, there was the familiar sound, the sputtering of a P-51’s Merlin engine. A second later, the red- and white-checkered nose, a member of the 504th fighter squadron, dropped beneath the marine layer 100 feet above the airfield in Cambrideshire, England. The “Mustang” looked like it had been used for target practice. The control tower’s Captain Buzz Benton immediately called for all damage control units to the end of the runway. Looking through a pair of binoculars, he noticed the plane’s landing gear was down, but the pilot was lifeless in the cockpit.
“There’s no name on the plane. It’s got to be the new replacement! The kid looks in bad shape!”
The Mustang hit the runway and bounced three times. The pilot didn’t apply his brakes and ran out of paved runway and nose down in a ditch with his tail up. Immediately, the fire fighters opened the cockpit and pulled the pilot’s lifeless body from the plane placing him on a stretcher and into the Dodge power wagon with red crosses. Captain Benton said, “That kid, 2nd Lt. Maximo Calvini, desperately wanted to fly support missions for our invasion troops soon! The ‘Old Man’ will be writing a letter to his parents, another Gold Star family.”
That afternoon was May 29, 1944, Memorial Day. It was eight days before the largest amphibious invasion in recorded history, D-Day. Allied troops from Canada, England, Free France, Free Poland and the United States landed at five beaches along the 50-mile coast of Normandy, France. The air was electric with anticipation.
Tomorrow is Thursday, June 6, 2019, the 75th anniversary of the U.S. Army’s 1st and 29th divisions landing at “Bloody Omaha” Beach and the 4th Infantry Division landing at Utah Beach and Lt. Colonel Rudder’s 2nd Rangers Battalion climbing the cliffs at Point du Hoc. The 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions jumped from C-47 cargo planes a minute or two after midnight on the 6th. P-38s, P-47s, P-51s, B-25s, B-26s, B-17s and B-24s flew missions bombing railyard, supply roads and anything that had a swastika on it. Every allied aircraft had three black and white lines painted on both wings and the plane’s body to easily identify our aircraft to our troops to prevent “friendly fire” accidents.
“The first Mustangs were average fighters until North American installed the Rolls Royce ‘Merlin’ engine,” said John, a Korean War P-51 pilot. With the “Merlin,” it became the fastest Allied fighter during the War, 450 mph on a level flight.
Each plane cost $50,000 to build during the War, $673,000 in 2019 dollars. P-51s shot down 4,950 enemy aircraft with 250 Mustang pilots becoming Aces. An Ace shot down six or more confirmed enemy aircraft. North American Aviation manufactured 15,588 Mustangs, 350 per month.
With three 50 calibers mounted in each wing and the ability to carry 1,000 pounds of ordnance the Mustang supported our ground troops by destroying any enemy troop movements or German Tiger tanks. A few Mustangs had two 20 mm cannons (a 20 mm is 3/4 inch in diameter) mounted in each wing.
The USAAF and the RAF, Royal Air Force, rotated their pilots from flying missions to training new pilots, sharing their combat flight experiences to air cadets. One example, when a Mustang had a ME-109 on his tail. He would turn tighter and faster circles than the ME-109. Soon, the Mustang would be behind the ME-109 and shred it with a burst from its six 50-caliber machine guns.
Another experienced Mustang pilot’s trick was to climb straight up when he had a ME-109 on his tail. If the ME-109 followed the P-51, the ME-109’s engine would stall with the plane crashing into the ground. The Luftwaffe pilot would be fortunate to bail out in time for his parachute to open.
In January 1944, Gen. Doolittle took command of the Eighth Air Force, and he hung this sign on the wall, “The first duty of the Eighth Air Force is to destroy German Fighters.”
Doolittle devised the strategy to assign our bomber groups as “bait” to bomb oil installations and vital factories, which the Luftwaffe would automatically defend with their fighters. Doolittle said, “As far as I’m concerned, this was the most important and far-reaching military decision I made in the air war in Europe. It was also the most controversial.”
The Mustang fighter squadrons would fly up to 50 miles in front of the bomber groups they were protecting to intercept Luftwaffe fighters. In January 1944, the Luftwaffe lost 34 percent of their fighters and 56 percent of their fighters in February 1944. Do the math: 90 percent of their fighters were destroyed equaling air superiority.
If you remember the 1962 movie “The Longest Day,” the Luftwaffe had only two ME-109s to make a pass or two over the Allied invading troops on D-Day beaches.
For Americans living on the East Coast, the D-Day landings began at 1:30 a.m. EDST on June 6. Americans woke up on the 6th to hear about the Allies’ invasion. To avoid the feeling of helplessness, many people visited their church to “pray for our boys.”
While speaking to his troops in the spring of 1944, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel spoke about the anticipated Allies’ invasion and driving the Allies back into the sea, “This will be the longest day … the longest day.” So true.
Proudly fly your American flag on Thursday and say a prayer thanking the 9,380 white marble crosses and Stars of David at the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, on the escarpment above “Bloody Omaha Beach.”