By Andy Weddington
Friday, 06 May 2011
"When my brother and I built the first man-carrying flying machine we thought that we were introducing into the world an invention which would make further wars practically impossible."
Notes received about last week's Commentary moved me to do additional research on the Eighth Air Force and mission of the P-47 Thunderbolt during World War II. Of course, the effort proved educational. And surprising.
As we all know, the Internet provides instantaneous access to a phenomenal repository of information. But finding what you're looking for is not always so easy though persistance and patience through fine-tuning searches does occasionally pay dividends. After scrolling through screens and screens of link listings, a couple of words in one summary caught my attention. Carefully reviewing the link content for a few minutes I could not believe what I'd stumbled upon--a firsthand account, essentially a personal but official diary, of what was surely an exciting, and at times terrifying, afternoon for the young aviator I wrote tribute to last week.
So for today an unplanned but fitting and necessary addendum to "THE GEORGIA PEACH'S FINAL SORTIE."
On a clear and cold Thursday afternoon, 24 February 1944, over the hostile skies of Germany, 'The Georgia Peach' aka: First Lieutenant Richard A. Stearns, Army Air Corps--not yet 22 years of age--shot down two German Focke-Wulf 190s. Those kills, of his four, represented by swastikas painted just below the canopy along the port side of his P-47.
What was not clear from research is if those kills were his first or last two before he was shot down and captured 45 days later on Easter Sunday, 09 April, and held for thirteen months as a POW in Stalag Luft 1, Barth, Germany. That detail matters not.
I found two single page reports.
Centered along the top and bottom of each page...
C O N F I D E N T I A L
On each report, a couple of lines below the top C O N F I D E N T I A L and centered was typewritten in uppercase: ENCOUNTER REPORT
Each report included paragraphs A. through I., pilot's signature, approval and initials of a reviewer, and a Headquarters, Eighth Fighter Command rubber stamp imprint--a 1 1/4 by 2 1/4 inch box for administrative use--in red ink in the vicinity of the top right of the page.
Headquarters registered the reports 21569-D and 21569-E. The numeric-alpha designators were handwritten--as was the numeral '1' below the designator on each report.
Paragraphs A. through H. identical on each report...
B. 24 February, 1944
C. 350th Fighter Squadron
D. Approximately 1245
E. Vicinity of Obernkirchen
G. F.W. 190
H. One F.W. 190 destroyed
Note paragraph F. likely denoted weather/visibility.
Paragraph I. is where the reports differ and get interesting.
Register No. 21569-D...
"I was flying Basement White 2, on Lt. Col. Duncan's wing, when we started a bounce on eight F.W. 190's that were below and off to the left of a box of B-24's. On going down we discovered that there were some P-47's from another group, also mixing it up with the 190's and our first bounce was broken up by them cutting in front of us. We pulled up into a left climbing turn, and as we did I looked back and saw a 190 on my tail - at the same time feeling hits on my plane. I broke to the left - the altitude was around 15,000 feet - and started a roll down with everything in the corner. I gave my flight leader a call and told him I wasn't with him anymore and continued to roll down. About 8,000 feet I leveled off and saw I had lost him. The 190's were still pretty thick, so I picked one out and started my attack. I came in almost dead astern, with a little deflection, and gave him a short burst from 300 yards, observing strikes along the wings and around the engine. I closed to 175 yards at which time the 190 went into a steep left climbing turn and I saw more strikes on his right wing. We had dropped down to about 1500 feet, or less, when the E/A [Enemy Aircraft]started for the ground on its back. Just before it hit, the canopy flew off and the pilot shot out and his chute opened. The plane hit the ground and exploded.
I claim one F.W. 190 Destroyed."
On the lower right side of the report is the signature of Richard A. Stearns above typewritten RICHARD A. STEARNS with 1st Lt., Air Corps. next under.
The bottom third of the narrative underlined in blue ink. Also in ink the numeral 5 in parentheses with an 'ok' and someone's initials approving the kill.
Add one kill to flight logbook and paint a swastika on the side of the airplane.
Register No. 21569-E...
"After breaking off my first combat and being alone, I started climbing and was around 3-4,000 feet when two more F.W. 190's jumped me. I broke into them and we started a Luftberry that lasted several minutes. One E/A would pull out to the side, and as I would turn with the other one, he'd come at a quarter head on attack. We traded head on attacks quite a few times and it was on one of these that I downed another E/A. I opened fire with a short burst at about 350 yards, and saw strikes around the engine and on his left wing. By this time we were down around 1500 feet. The E/A flipped over on his back and hit the ground in almost a vertical dive and exploded. I didn't see the pilot get out. I made one more turn with the E/A that was left and then hit the deck. He followed me down, and we were both going balls out on the tree tops. The range was too great for him to get any hits on me - about 1,000-1,200 yards and with the water injection I soon out distanced him. When the E/A was out of sight I climbed to 10,000 feet and came on out alone.
I claim one F.W. 190 destroyed."
As on the "D" report, on the lower right side of the page is the signature of Richard A. Stearns above typewritten RICHARD A. STEARNS with 1st Lt., Air Corps. next under.
A couple of sentences in the middle of the narrative underlined in blue ink. Also in ink the numeral 6 in parentheses with an 'ok' and someone's (the same someone) initials approving the kill.
Add another kill to flight logbook and paint another swastika on the side of the airplane.
Flying in support of Operation Argument--also known as "Big Week," a large-scale attack on German military aircraft manufacturing plants, it was quite an afternoon for First Lieutenant Stearns--aka: 'The Georgia Peach.'
Imagine. Twenty-one years old. Two aerial combat kills. And at times closer than a couple of hundred yards to his enemy--equally determined to shoot him down--moving at hundreds of miles per hour between thousands and hundreds of feet of altitude, diving, climbing, rolling, twisting and turning while firing wing-mounted heavy caliber machine gun rounds at each other. And he returns to base with bullet holes in his airplane--living to fly and fight another day. At least one of the German pilots not so fortunate.
All in a day's work. After debrief maybe he had a stiff drink, or two--one for each kill, at whatever make-shift officers' club had been cobbled together. I'd like to think so. And he and his mates swapped incredible tales--none of which had to be made up. If anything, could they possibly capture the adrenaline rush, exhileration, fears, relief, and sense of satisfaction in their telling? Maybe they didn't have to amongst each other--they'd all done it.
Now for contrast think about what the average 21 year-old is doing today.
Not many of them are serving their country. But those that are volunteered knowing they'd likely go to war. Bravo for their selfless service.
And the typical military fixed-wing pilot is at least a couple three years older before earning their wings.
I know a lot of pilots and don't believe any of them have flown within a couple hundred yards of enemy aircraft--at least not engaging with weapons--much less shot down two enemy aircraft in one afternoon.
But to be fair most of them have had an exciting moment or two in the air--such is the inevitability of flying. It's a damn dangerous and oft times unforgiving business. Like their forefathers, a stiff drink, or two, at the club after debrief. And telling of tales to their mates who, likewise, have been there and understand.
Anyway, World War II was a different day.
It sure was.
Two weeks ago today, some 67 years after being shot down, 'The Georgia Peach' "flew" his last sortie--the skies friendly.
Eight days later on Lady's Island, South Carolina, he was laid to rest with full military honors. A gentleman by the name of George, whom I've know for a long time, told me he alone had been entrusted with the privilege of delivering the eulogy. George knew Major Richard A. Stearns, U. S. Air Force (Retired) aka: 'The Georgia Peach' as well as anyone could. He called him "Dad."
I don't think she'd object, I grabbed Major Stearns' daughter-in-law's post funeral comment off Facebook...
"Back from SC and a wonderful military funeral for Dick Stearns. Flag at half staff, gun salute, folded flag given to daughter, taps, and it just so happened to be the weekend for an air show in Beaufort, SC, so right when the funeral was over you could hear military jets flying by - it was lovely."
And so another warrior from "The Greatest Generation," his duty done, rests in peace.
In admiration and with great respect, "Farewell, "Colonel" Stearns!"
A Marine friend sent a link to a video about the P-47 mission. The video is some 40 minutes, but so well done and interesting it feels more like 15 or 20. Make time to watch--to learn about this incredible flying war machine some pilots compared to flying a bath tub, but more so to better appreciate the remarkable, daring, and fearless young pilots--men like 'The Georgia Peach'--who flew them. The squadron's "old man"--the commanding officer--was all of 23 or 24 maybe 25 years-old, and their pilots just kids. Thank you, Tom. http://www.archive.org/details/thunderbolt
And, thank you, Ed, for the sobering reminder about Eighth Air Force losses. The fliers had a greater chance of being wounded, killed, or captured than their brothers-in-arms serving in front line infantry units. Marine Corps casualties in the South Pacific were tremendous, but the Eighth Air Force's were far greater. Nearly incomprehensible the sacrifices by the courageous to save the world from tyranny.
Luftberry--a horizontal circle defensive air combat tactic commonly used during World War I to the advantage of slower, less capable aircraft. During World War II it was often used by bombers, and sometimes by inferior fighters.