Military history




Although he spent little time in Berlin throughout the war, Adolf Hitler took up residence beneath the city’s surface on January 16, 1945. Weeks later, on the day before jet fighters rose to defend his capital against one of the Allies’ largest bombing efforts, Hitler met in his apartment in the Führerbunker, the air-raid shelter twenty-eight feet below the garden of the old Reich Chancellery building, with a dozen mostly military men, some of them quite junior. It was March 23, 1945.

Surrounded by high-quality furnishings and with a portrait nearby of his hero Frederick the Great, the Führer talked with the military men as if his “wonder weapons” and his Luftwaffe would still be able to save the day. In a reference to fighting along the Rhine River, Hitler asked, “Is the entire Luftwaffe here to eliminate this at least?” The word “here” referred to his pointing at a map.

The portrait of Frederick II was always present. The Führer was intrigued with this historical figure and with likenesses of him. When Hitler traveled in his railway car, the Anton Graff painting of Frederick the Great traveled with him. When Hitler flew aboard his Junkers Ju 52, the portrait flew, too, to the dismay of personal pilot Hans Baur, who complained that the picture was usually packed in a bulky crate that scratched the plane’s leather seating. Hitler was, of course, a connoisseur of art who collected priceless paintings and whose soldiers pillaged every private collection and museum gallery in occupied Europe.

Colonel Nicolaus von Below, the air adjutant, who felt comfortable speaking truth to the Führer—he may have been the only officer ever to overcome Hitler’s dislike of men with an aristocratic background—probably wished he were anyone else at that moment.

“My Führer,” Below said, “today Me 262s and Arado 234s were sent out as well as Otto fighters.” Otto was Below’s personal term for a plane with a propeller. “The fighters barely got through, though, because they became involved in aerial combat …”

German jet pilots were fighting at the river crossing. Messerschmitt Me 262 pilot Hans Busch, who was still in training, watched other 262 pilots scramble into their cockpits and go aloft. “They were going to unleash those powerful 30mm cannons on American GIs crossing the river,” Busch said. Instead, the Me 262s ran into P-51 Mustangs. They tangled and fought, but not on a scale of the battles to come the following day.

In his bunker meeting with the military, Hitler said he wanted more focus on where the air effort should be. Hitler, who knew military terminology well, wanted air action focused on Patton’s forces at the Oppenheim bridgehead. Hitler was frustrated at heavy air losses that were not being properly accounted for.

To von Below, the Führer said, “What shocks me with the Luftwaffe are the so-called numbers of aircraft missing where it just says, ‘Missing’—over German Reich territory! One can’t imagine them to be completely blown up so that nothing can be found.” He added concern that “they don’t report on these things any more; they maintain complete silence.” Hitler was expressing his fear that some German aircraft were defecting to the Allied side, a fear that was totally unfounded.

As for von Below, he had plenty to feel not so good about. With the seizure (back on March 7) of the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen— undeterred by Arado Ar 234 jets overhead—the Allies already had a foothold on the east side of the river. Now they were coming on strong: the previous night, von Below knew, Gen. George S. Patton’s U.S. 5th Division had crossed the Rhine and established a six-mile deep bridgehead across from Oppenheim, near Darmstadt, and had grabbed up nineteen thousand demoralized German prisoners. Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt’s defending armies, prohibited in an order from Hitler from improving their situation via a tactical withdrawal, were now being pounded hard.

To make matters worse, a new report had crossed von Below’s desk about something German leaders didn’t want their own citizens to know: some of the American fighter pilots causing so much trouble for the Luftwaffe were … black.

This wasn’t news to von Below, who for months had overseen efforts to prevent black prisoners of war from being placed in locations where people could see their skin color. The Germans were in fact very well informed about the African American pilots. When they captured 1st Lt. Harold Brown, an interrogator rattled off personal details about several of his fellow pilots. And added: “Tell me, Brown, why are you fellows so willing to fight for the United States? I know how colored people are treated in the United States and especially in the South. We are considered enemies … yet our boys receive better treatment in the United States than you. I can’t understand you fellows!”

Yes, von Below knew about these men, but he hated being reminded that this was a difficult day to be a defender of the master race.

March 2, 1945

With KG 51 at Neuburg, Oberfaehnrich (Senior Officer Candidate) Hans Busch was beginning to believe that in spite of his many combat sorties in various kinds of warplanes (culminating with the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter), he would never have an opportunity to shoot down an Allied aircraft. He was right in that respect. The overwhelming majority of fighter pilots in air combat never score an aerial victory, although Busch had more flying experience in more aircraft types than most who end up with a tally of zero.

Busch was not immune to the difficult and painful things that can happen to a fighter pilot, however.

With his best friend Oberfaehnrich (Senior Officer Candidate) Horst Netzeband, Busch was “bonded like a brother,” he said later. The two young men shared a room and a wall locker. They spent their spare time together. Each wrote to his parents about the other. When Netzeband suffered a minor injury while flying—a canopy blew off in mid-air and a guide wire cut his throat—Busch helped him in bandaging his face and encouraged him to recuperate. Both were now gradually piling up hours in the Me 262 cockpit. They were no longer the newest or the youngest flying Hitler’s jets. As Netzeband’s blown-canopy mishap demonstrated, they were doing the difficult things that produced the seasoning in a mature fighter pilot.

On March 2, 1945, Netzeband was scheduled for an early-morning patrol at twelve thousand feet, where an oxygen mask was required. At the life support section for their Gruppe in KG 51 at Neuburg, Netzeband sought to check out an oxygen mask but could not find the sergeant in charge. This meant Netzeband had to fly at a lower altitude, which meant a greater fuel burn and thus a lower air speed. He must have been seething with frustration knowing that this was exactly the circumstance under which the Me 262 was vulnerable to the marauding Americans.

Once starting his mission, the original P-51 Mustang outfit, the 354th Fighter Group, was coming straight at him in no time. Captain James P. Keane was in the lead of four Mustangs. First Lieutenant Theodore W. Sedvert was one of the other P-51 pilots. Sedvert, a Marylander just shy of his twenty-fourth birthday, was strafing a locomotive when he pulled up to see Netzeband’s Me 262 sitting large and slow and steady in front of him.

In his memoir, Busch wrote that four Mustangs shot Netzeband down (in fact, Sedvert did), and “apparently he attempted to bail out [and] unbuckled his seat belts but because of a bullet that had pierced his hip he was unable to lift himself up and out of the cockpit. At 9:35 a.m., near the small town of Dillingen the aircraft hit the ground and Horst was catapulted out of the aircraft and his body was found several hundred feet from the crash site.” Busch and one other pilot were the only people at Netzeband’s funeral.

March 24, 1945

On March 24, 1945, a formation of P-51s led by Col. Benjamin O. Davis, took off from Ramitelli Airfield on Italy’s Adriatic coast on the longest escort mission their crews would fly during World War II. Davis was commander of the 332nd Fighter Group. His men were the Tuskegee Airmen, called Negroes in the polite language. They were American fighter pilots here in the war zone after training in an America that would still be segregated by race on the day the war ended. They were formidable opponents for Hitler, Göring, Galland, von Below, and proponents of Aryan superiority.

To confront the Allies, Jagdgeschwader 7 (Fighter Group 7), “Nowotny,” launched about thirty Messerschmitt Me 262s from Brandenburg Briest near Berlin. This jet unit was nicknamed Windhund (Wind Hound), the German name for Greyhound, which was the mascot, and Windhund Nowotny in honor of its first leader. The jet pilots had been very busy. They were becoming an all-too-familiar sight among American bomber formations.

The forty-three Mustangs, together with Mustangs from other units, were in the air to help B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers run a gauntlet of more than 1,600 miles into the heart of Hitler’s Germany and back. The bombers’ target, a massive Daimler-Benz tank factory in Berlin, was heavily defended. Some twenty-five aircraft defended the plant, including battle-tested Focke-Wulf Fw 190 radial propeller fighters, the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet rocket plane, and the Me 262 jet. On this particular day, the onlyGerman aircraft to get into the air were Me 262 jets. The massive bombing strike by the Americans in daylight, to be followed by another by the British that night, was intended to distract the Germans from the crossing of the Rhine some three hundred miles to the west.

Although the Reich never had more than 82 of its 1,294 Me 262s ready to fight (although von Below gave the figure 187 in a meeting with the Führer), it seemed to the Americans that there were far more and that all of them were defending Berlin on this day. Davis repeatedly told his men that the German pilots were good and would do everything in their power to take advantage of their speed and heavy guns.

When another fighter group missed a rendezvous (as noted later in this text), Davis instructed his pilots to continue toward the German capital. Before reaching Berlin, though, Davis reported engine trouble and was forced to turn back toward Italy. Captain Armour G. McDaniel Sr. took command of the escort-fighter formation. First Lieutenant Roscoe Brown (no relation to prisoner of war Harold Brown) commanded the portion of the formation that came from the group’s 100th Fighter Squadron. Among pilots in the air with McDaniel and Brown were 2nd Lt. Charles V. Brantley and 1st Lt. Earl R. Lane.

The 332nd’s pilots grew up in a world that treated them as second-class citizens. Still, those who had completed the arduous passage into fighter cockpits considered themselves elite. It would be misleading to think of them as typical of African-Americans of their era. Unlike many white fighter pilots, all of the blacks had been required to have a college degree merely to gain entry to pilot training. Their Tuskegee, Alabama, training center achieved remarkable efficiency as the only base that combined all three flight-training functions, primary, basic, and advanced, at one location. The Tuskegee alumni were some of the best pilots in the U.S. Army due to a combination of prewar experience and the personal drive of those who overcame hurdles to be accepted for training. Nothing about them was ordinary.

And they knew their German aircraft.

They knew the Me 163 and Me 262 were faster than their P-51s, but they also knew they had greater maneuverability. They knew the “wonder weapon” fighters tended to run out of fuel more quickly than their Mustangs.

Since eight Me 262s fell in that battle (out of sixteen claimed by fighter pilots and bomber gunners), some have alleged that this was more a “turkey shoot” than a fair fight. The supposition that this was the second team in the German fighter force was, however, incorrect; of the dozen Me 262 pilots in the air that day, about half were aces. Far from being an easy day, the battle over Berlin became a triumph of Americans seizing advantage of what they knew to be the vulnerabilities of Hitler’s super weapon.

It appears the first pilot to encounter a jet was Flight Officer Thurston L. Gaines Jr. of the 332nd group’s 99th Fighter Squadron. Gaines’s after-action report read:

I was flying number four position in Yellow Flight furnishing penetration cover for B-17s. At approximately 1210 hours, we were escorting B-17s at an altitude of 27,000 feet about 30 miles southwest of the target when three Me 262s were seen diving on the bomber formation from about 30,000 feet. The Me 262s were in string and made their attack from five o’clock high at the rear section of the bombers. The first jet missed his bomber apparently and continued his flight under the bomber formation without altering his course. The second jet made his attack in a glide and after firing a burst from his guns applied power to his engine. This was evidenced by the fact that a puff of dark smoke emitted from the jet nacelles. This jet continued his attack under the bomber formation and started a turn to the right. Immediately after observing the puff of smoke from the jets, a B-17 was seen to do an abrupt high wingover to the right and started to spin in the same direction. The second Me 262 to make a pass at the bomber fired from approximately 1,500 feet. By the time I released my wing tanks, the jet aircraft had made his pass and I gave pursuit.

Gaines wasn’t going to catch an Me 262 by following it from straight behind. His report continued:

I soon discovered that his rate of speed was too fast for me to close in on him. Consequently, I started a climbing turn to the right at approximately 20,000 feet when I observed another Me 262 in a steep right turn at about one o’clock, slightly high. I pulled the nose of my aircraft up and started firing from about 2,000 feet with thirty-five degree deflection. No strikes were observed, nor did the enemy aircraft attempt evasive action. It appeared that the jet pilot did not see me because he made no attempt to bear his guns on my aircraft but instead continued in his steep right turn. The rate of closure was not exceptionally fast for an almost head-on approach and I would estimate that I fired a good three-second burst in my climbing deflection shot.

All of the Me 262s that I observed in the area appeared to be black with blue-gray under surfaces. No markings, belly tanks or rockets were observed and I did not observe contrails during the encounters.

Maybe it was the greatest frustration imaginable for a fighter pilot: Gaines had fired and missed. Wrote Brown in an official report:

We were leading a formation of B-17s. The 52nd Fighter Group [which had been scheduled to replace the 332nd on the final leg of the trip to Berlin] had arrived at the rendezvous point too late. Then Ben Davis had engine trouble and the next thing I know I’m leading the 100th Fighter Squadron.

All of a sudden at nine o’clock I saw these streaks. I ordered, ‘Drop your tanks and follow me.’ ” There had been a scandalous shortage of 110-gallon auxiliary fuel tanks at Ramitelli, which resourceful maintainers had resolved by both hook and crook and now those fuel tanks, each worth the price of a new Chevrolet sedan, went tumbling into the void.

Ten-kill air ace Oberleutnant (Lt. Col.) Franz Kulp, who was about to enter the crosshairs of Brown’s gunsight, could not know that the Tuskegee pilots had been thinking ahead. After being briefed on the Me 262 by intelligence officers, Brown and his flying mates had devised a maneuver, as Brown put it, “where when the jets were coming up, instead of going right after the jets so they could get away from us, cause they were faster, we would go down under the bombers away from the jets, make a hard turn, and put the jet into our gunsight—and boom! It was a good maneuver because the jets were faster than we were, but we were more maneuverable.”

Brown’s after-action combat report, written two days later, differs in some detail from accounts he gave later, including his interview with the author of this book. Brown wrote:

I was on the west side of the third and fourth sections of B-17s of the 5th Bomb Wing at about 27,000 feet when at 2125 hours we noticed three Me 262s coming in at the bombers at eleven o’clock, breaking to one o’clock. The attack was below the bombers. The jets were attacking individually rather than in formation. I called the flight to drop tanks and peeled right on the three Me 262s. I fired at one from 2,400 feet, having him in the extreme range of my K-14 gunsight. He went into a dive and I went with him down to 22,000 feet where I broke off pursuit because of the exceptional diving speed of the jet. I climbed back to 27,000 feet. It was then that I sighted a formation of four Me 262s under the bombers at about 24,000 feet. They were below us going north. I was going south. I peeled down on them toward their rear but almost immediately I saw a lone Me 262 at 24,000 feet, climbing at ninety degrees to me and 2,500 feet from me. I pulled up at him in a fifteen degree climb and fired three long bursts at him from 2,000 feet at eight o’clock to him. Almost immediately, the pilot bailed out from about 24,500 feet. I saw flames burst from the jet orifices of the enemy aircraft. The attack on the bombers was ineffective because of the prompt action of my flight in breaking up the attack. The jets appeared unaggressive to [my fellow pilots and me] and used diving speed as evasive action. They seem to employ the tactic of attacking bombers from below where they are not easily visible to our fighters.

In a different account, Brown said, “I did a split-S, went under the bombers, did a hard right, pulled up, shot the jet, blew him up, and that was the first jet victory for the Fifteenth Air Force.”

The Tuskegee Airmen fought brilliantly but would later add gloss to their outstanding record by making claims that were exaggerated. This was one. Brown in reality scored the fourth jet victory for the Italy-based Fifteenth. First Lieutenant Eugene P. McGauflin and 2nd Lt. Roy Scales of 31st Fighter Group (on December 22, 1944) and Capt. William J. Dillard, also of the 31st group, two days earlier (on March 22, 1945) were all credited with shooting down Me 262s. In later years, Tuskegee Airmen Inc., a foundation dedicated to preserving the history of America’s first black military airmen, would claim never to have lost a bomber the airmen were escorting. And they would claim not merely to have gotten the first Me 262 for the Fifteenth, but the first Me 262 by an American. Brown made the latter claim in an interview with the author of this book.

Brown’s victim in that air duel, Kulp, wriggled out of the Me 262 and descended to earth beneath a parachute canopy, while grappling with severe wounds that kept him out of the rest of the war.

The Tuskegee pilots’ achievements needed no amplification. As the battle high over Berlin unfolded, 1st Lt. Robert W. Williams and 1st Lt. Samuel W. Watts Jr. tangled with an Me 262 they said was flying at 450 miles per hour. They fired, broke, fired again, and like Gaines were unsuccessful in bringing down the foe. Making the most of their limited advantages, 332nd pilots Brantley and Lane joined Brown in tallying up victory claims against the vaunted Me 262 jet.

Brantley was from St. Louis, Missouri. He was luckier than Gaines and had to work harder than Brown. He wrote: “Between 1200 and 1220 hours … my element leader and I encountered an Me 262. We were at an altitude of 25,000 feet flying practically abreast when two Me 262s came in from behind and slightly below us. Both aircraft appeared to be coasting as I saw no indication of power. One jet was between us and the other was to my flight leader’s right. I dropped my nose, being well within range, and made several bursts on the ship that was in front of me from dead astern.”

Brantley was really working at this. He added:

The jets broke in a slow turn in opposite directions, pulling us apart. I followed my target in a dive for a short while observing hits on the fuselage. I then broke off to join my flight leader. The dive was very shallow and at no time did I go below 20,000 feet. As I broke away, the Me 262 steepened its rate of turn and dive. It was seen by my flight leader and other pilots to go down in flames. I encountered another Me 262 while joining my flight leader. This Me 262 passed me at approximately ninety degrees. I fired but no hits were observed. I was unable to pick up the correct lead and could not turn fast enough because of one wing tank, which was stuck. The jets were able to pull away from us without using power. Altitude is essential in combating the fast jet aircraft.

Brantley’s six .50-caliber machine guns chewed up his Me 262 and killed an accomplished German ace, Oberleutnant (Lt. Col.) Ernst Wörner.

Lane had great eyesight and scored his victory from an extraordinary two thousand–yard distance in a deflection shot while in a tight, left-hand turn, leading far ahead of the jet. His adversary was seven-kill ace Leutnant (2nd Lt.) Alfred Ambs.

Lane, who entered the battle in the number three position in a flight of four P-51s, wrote:

At 29,000 feet at about 1210 hours I noticed four aircraft, apparently enemy, in string passing from three o’clock to nine o’clock under the bombers. They were completely out of range. I did not notice any damage to the bombers.

After seeing these aircraft I began looking around. We “S’ed” across the bombers and made a turn back to right when I saw an Me 262. The Me 262 was in a thirty degree drive, coming across the bomber formation. He appeared as if he was peeling for an attack on the bombers. I came in for a thirty-degree deflection shot from 2,000 feet.

He did not quite fill my gunsight. I fired three short bursts and saw the plane emitting smoke. A piece of the plane, either the canopy or one of the jet orifices, flew off. I then pulled up and circled over the spot where he went down. I saw a crash and a puff of black smoke. Two seconds later, I saw another piece hit close to the first piece. I was at 17,000 feet when I broke off the encounter. The jet was a steel blue-gray camouflage.

After this encounter I teamed up with another friendly aircraft and headed for home. Before leaving the area, a black P-51 with German markings approached us at 22,000 feet at five o’clock. The friendly pilot I was with yelled, ‘Break right!’ I did so and the enemy [P-51] broke off and flew north.

Lane must have seen a dark green (not black) P-51 operated by the Wanderzirkus Rosarius (Rosarius’s traveling circus). Hauptman (Capt.) “Ted” Rosarius operated a unit of captured aircraft. Their primary purpose was to familiarize Luftwaffe pilots with Allied equipment—the “circus” had at least two P-51B/C and four P-51D fighters—but they were also used to spy on bomber formations. Kampfgeschwader 200 (KG 200, or Battle Wing 200) operated other captured aircraft.

As for the Me 262 pilot who fell in front of Lane’s guns, Ambs bailed out at seventeen thousand feet and came to rest entangled in the branches of a tree. Reported by some sources to have lost his life that day, Ambs actually walked away from the experience and lived a long life (he would live to see history buffs build and fly an Me 262 replica in flight in a new century), but he never fought again.

In an interview with Colin Heaton, group commander Davis later said, “Not only had we destroyed the myths that blacks could not fly or compete in a white military world, we proved we could even exceed those expectations and rise above our white peers.” Here, again, was the Tuskegee tendency to exaggerate. “The March 24, 1945, mission was also the longest fighter escort mission of the war”—another exaggeration—“with a round trip of something like almost two thousand miles … it was also one of the best missions ever, because our group of fighters kept the German fighters away and we did not lose a single bomber or fighter on that mission. Any time you took off and came back with no losses was outstanding,” Davis added. In fact, two bombers and five fighters were lost that busy day.

One of the jets scored hits on a P-51. McDaniel parachuted from his burning aircraft. McDaniel became a prisoner of war and later pursued a successful career in the air force.

The Tuskegee Airmen belonged to just one of the 280 combat groups fielded by the Army Air Forces during the war. They would have to wait until 1948 to see the U.S. armed forces desegregated, and even then the process would be slow and painful. Although he never found himself fighting Hitler’s jets, the high-scoring fighter pilot among the Tuskegee pilots was Capt. Lee Archer, with four aerial victories. Archer came home after his combat tour and traveled with his wife by train from Atlanta to his next duty assignment in Washington—only to be refused service in a railway dining car because of the color of his skin. Arriving near Washington, Archer and his wife found a Virginia restaurant with a sign on its front door: “Due to our facilities, we are unable to service colored patrons.” It was a sign of progress. “A few years earlier they’d have conveyed the same message with two words,” said Archer.

Five Americans with the 31st Fighter Group also shot down Me 262s on the same day as the Tuskegee fliers—Col. William A. Daniel, 1st Lt. Forrest M. Keene, 1st Lt. Raymond D. Leonard, Capt. Kenneth T. Smith, and 2nd Lt. William M. Wilder.

April 1945

April 1945—the final, full month of the war—was something of a turkey shoot for American fighter pilots who by now had clearly defeated the German fighter forces participating in the Defense of the Reich. In the first eight days of April, American fighter pilots were credited with shooting down thirteen Me 262s.

The B-26 Marauder medium bomber was always a tempting target for Me 262 pilots. On April 9, 1945, they shot one up and shot one down.

Also on April 9, 1945, Edward Giller, having long ago transitioned from the P-38 Lightning to the P-51, and still a member of the 55th Fighter Group, was in the air near Munich when he saw two Mustangs chasing an Me 262 down below.

“Usually, the only way we could get those guys was to sneak up on them,” said Giller. “The other way was to get them when they were trying to land.

“I’m at twelve thousand feet and see this jet way off and down below me. I observe other Mustangs chasing this guy, but my flight has the advantage of altitude and speed. I opened the throttle wide open and down I went. It took about five minutes for me work my way down to where I was at about five thousand feet and the Me262 was at one thousand. I ended up ahead of the pack just when he put his gear and flaps down.” The Me 262 pilot, unaware that he was being stalked, was on final approach for Munich-Riem airfield.

Giller pressed the trigger when the Me 262 was over the airfield perimeter at less than fifty feet of altitude. “I got my shots in at him. He crashed on the runway. I kept going at ten feet of altitude and 450 miles per hour and got the hell out of there,” he said. The Me 262 pilot is not identified in available literature, but after the war Giller was told the pilot climbed out of his aircraft, left the wreck, left the airfield, and went away and was never seen again. That was happening increasingly in the German armed forces. An Me 262 pilot probably would not have known, but some in the Reich military were surely aware that Hitler aide Martin Bormann was exploring ways the Führer and a few other top leaders would be able to escape when the end came.

April 14, 1945

Clayton Kelly Gross was on his second combat tour in Europe, an ace, having flown both Mustangs and Thunderbolts in combat by April 14, 1945, when he led eight P-51s on a fighter sweep in the Hersfeld, Mulhausen, Weimar area of Germany. A captain filling the responsibilities of a major or a lieutenant colonel, Gross was flying, scanning, and deliberately hunting for the Luftwaffe. He dispatched a flight of four Mustangs to patrol southward and led the other quartet to the north. He was flying from the airfield known as A-66 at Gael, France—“a dirt field with wire mat superimposed,” he recalled—and journeying into German airspace with 1st Lt. Russell Kline, 1st Lt. George N. Kinmon Jr., and 2nd Lt. Berne A. “Danny” Glover at twelve thousand feet in an unusually clear sky. Gross recalled piloting his assigned Mustang, named Live Bait, but records appear to show him at the controls of a different 354th Fighter Group aircraft.

Gross’s fighter group achieved a number of distinctions. According to the book Air Force Combat Units of World War II, the 354th “was instrumental in the development and execution of long-range missions to escort heavy bombers … deep into enemy territory.” After moving to the Continent, the 354th group, the book notes, “assisted the Allied drive across France by flying fighter sweep, dive-bombing, strafing, and escort missions.” The unit supported Allied ground troops during the Battle of the Bulge, by conducting armed reconnaissance operations to destroy enemy troops, tanks, and rail lines. Now, the largest land battle ever fought by Americans was two months behind and Germany was below.

Looking over his nose at the Elbe River, Gross lowered his gaze and spotted what appeared to be an airfield, one that hadn’t been covered in any briefing. Something was in motion down there, moving across the patchwork of farm and forest south of the river. Gross did a double take, checked his mental register, and realized that he was looking down at a Messerschmitt Me 262. Gross had an advantage of about ten thousand feet of altitude over the jet, which was cruising at two thousand feet, its pilot apparently unaware.

Gross called out the sighting. Thanks to better intelligence and experience, he was thoroughly briefed, now, on the capabilities of the Me 262. He rolled, pulled the stick back to start straight down, and left his throttle open. He remembers his air speed indictor touching 450 miles per hour. Gross doesn’t remember the words he spoke over the radio, or whether he was thinking of his wife, Gwen, or of the movie I Wanted Wings, but he was pointedly conscious that something very important was happening, that he was on top of it, and that he was in charge.

It had not been easy, getting this far. Gross had shot down five Messerschmitt Bf 109 propeller-driven fighters, two on May 11, 1944, and one each on May 28, June 14, and October 29, 1944. “Our group lost 187 men who were shot down and killed or captured,” Gross said. “That’s about twice as many as we started the war with.”

He was confident now—having been in the war longer than most other fighter pilots, there was no other way—but Gross also was in a state of compressibility.

That was the term for the condition of air resistance up close to the sound barrier that would become so familiar to Chuck Yeager, Hans Guido Mutke, and others. The disruption to normal airflow over the leading edge of his Mustang’s thirty-seven-foot, laminar flow wing meant that, for a temporary time at least, Gross’s stick and rudder pedals were useless. He tried various control movements and nothing happened. He felt his Mustang was diving up against some invisible force that would break it into pieces. Gross still had one tiny little notch left on the throttle and now he rammed it all the way forward.

Abruptly, he began to feel forces working on the stick. He was coming out of it. And he was still boring down on an unsuspecting Me 262 jet, piloted by Kurt Lobgesong.

“This Me 262 had a big red number one painted on it,” Gross recalled in an interview. “The Germans identified their planes by ranking number. The staffel [staff] commander’s aircraft was number one. His second in command was two, and so on. The bigger the number was, the lower in rank the pilot was.

“I did a little praying. At lower altitude, I finally regained control and, lo and behold, the 262 was right in front of me. I shot at very close range. I opened fire from very close range and saw strikes on his left side. A fairly large piece of his left wingtip came off and the left jet engine began burning. I had to pull off right to avoid collision, and when I rolled back, I found him climbing straight up.

“I hit him again. He burst into flames. Then, I shot again, and he burned some more. I had sight of him in his cockpit. He climbed another thousand feet or so and, then, seemed to stop in mid-air. The canopy came off. The pilot ejected. I was thrilled as hell. His aircraft fell apart and he went down in flames and smoke.

“I tried to make a pass around the parachute, but we were over a German airfield by this time and the antiaircraft was opening up at me. I thought the guy lived. I was told after the war that he was been killed that day. Years later, I was at a reunion of German fighter pilots. I met the pilot I’d shot down. Kurt Lobgesong. The big red one on the nose of the jet belonged to him, a German commander. He thanked me for saving his life. He had been wounded in the left side and didn’t have to fly any more, which meant he lived through the war—something a lot of his mates did not do.” When he was shot down, Lobgesong was all of nineteen years old and a member of JG 7.

April 25, 1945

A standout among a flurry of last-minute air-to-air engagements before war’s end was the fight in which 1st Lt. William B. “Brad” Hoelscher found himself, after 8:00 a.m. on April 25, 1945. Just a few days earlier, Hans Busch’s outfit, KG 51, had moved a few Me 262s to the main airport near Prague, Czechoslovakia. The jet-propelled Me 262 was now a dark threat to Eighth and Fifteenth Air Force airmen attacking targets in the region around the Czech capital.

That morning, a mere five Me 262 pilots were credited with aerial victories over six B-17 Flying Fortresses. This mismatch was evidence of how much harm the jets could inflict, and of how much more impact they might have had, had they been introduced earlier.

Hoelscher was part of Cobweb Flight of the 334th Fighter Squadron, part of Col. Don Blakeslee’s fabled 4th Fighter Group. As “Cobweb Blue Three,” he was an element leader in his P-51D Mustang. He and his fellow Mustang men were near Prague when black puffs of antiaircraft fire—flak—began to swirl around them.

Hoelscher later wrote: “I broke to get out of a flak barrage, and saw an Me 262 that apparently had just taken off from an aerodrome. I broke onto his tail, missed with my first burst, and then started getting hits all over him. I kept firing three-second bursts at a range of about 500 yards, getting hits. I chased him all around the aerodrome. My indicated air speed was 375 miles per hour and altitude around 1,000 feet.”

While Hoelscher was pursuing the Me 262, shrapnel from flak bursts damaged his wing root and tore part of his tail away. Fully aware that he was seriously damaged and in jeopardy, he kept after the Me 262 and continued firing short bursts. He saw the Me 262 go out of control and begin to burn and smoke. The jet rolled over on its back.

Second Lieutenant Gordon A. Denson, who was behind Hoelscher in a P-51 named Priscilla, wrote: “I saw a large explosion near the edge of the aerodrome under us, where the Me 262 went down out of control on his back.”

According to an account that would later be published in today’s Czech Republic, another pilot saw the Me 262 strike the ground at 8:50 a.m. Hoelscher is not officially credited with an Me 262 kill that day, but he would believe all his life—he flew F-86 Sabres in the Korean War and A-1E Skyraiders in Vietnam—that he had scored an aerial victory near Prague that morning. German records reflect the loss of an Me 262 and its pilot, Leutnant (2nd Lt.) Sepp Huber.

According to a Czech publication (not available in English), Oberleutenant (1st Lt.) Stürm set forth from KG 51’s deployed location at Prague airfield in a motorcycle to attempt to rescue the pilot of Me 262. The jet fighter exploded. The blast badly wounded Stürm and killed Huber.

Hoelscher fought to save his Mustang, couldn’t, and bailed out. He may not have known it, but he had plenty to worry about. The situation for captured U.S. flyers in the Sudetenland was not good. One week earlier, (on April 17, 1945), fellow U.S. fighter pilot 2nd Lt. John H. Banks III was shot down near Prague, taken prisoner, and executed. One source reports that local police tied Banks to a tree and refused to allow the local citizens to bring him food or water. Banks died of exposure days later. He had been on his first mission.

In Hoelscher’s case, local citizens helped him evade capture. Missing in action for almost two weeks, he reported to the 14th Armored Division in Pilsen on May 7, 1945.

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