Military history




November 8, 1950

Damn! I’m going to get him!”

Those six words boomed in the earphones of American pilots high over the Yalu River as an air battle raged.

The speaker was 1st Lt. Russell J. Brown. He was pilot of an F-80 Shooting Star, the plane that had been called the P-80. He was in a screaming vertical dive with five of his six .50-caliber guns jammed. He must have thought it impossible to defeat a more advanced fighter with just a single gun working. But Americans had been up against more advanced fighters before.

In Brown’s gunsight was a MiG-15, a silvery, swept-wing jet that had entered the Korean War only in the past few days. A Soviet engineering team had designed the MiG-15 with access to German wartime jet technology. Kelly Johnson’s Lockheed team had designed the F-80 without that advantage.

At this juncture, Americans thought the men in the cockpits of Soviet-built MiGs were Korean or Chinese. They were Russians. Brown, of the 51st Fighter Group, was battling the Soviet Union’s 151st Guards Fighter Aviation Division.

Brown’s single gun emitted its buzz-saw sound. Brown’s bullets struck the MiG. Several people in his F-80 flight saw the MiG go down. The air force officially credits Brown with an air-to-air victory.

At the end of World War II, with the Gloster Meteor in Britain, the P-80 in Italy, and the Messerschmitt Me 262 in Germany—all fully operational—no jet fighters on opposite sides ever met in battle. What is not in dispute is that Russell J. Brown fought in history’s first jet-versus-jet air battle. But the rest of the story is a tale of history gone awry.

May 7, 1945

A weary frown adorned the face of Generalobertst (Gen.) Alfred Jodl as he signed the instrument of surrender at Reims, France. The war in Europe officially ended the next day, but for practical purposes it was already over. On opposite fronts, American and Soviet troops were overrunning concentration camps, military installations, and aircraft factories. American technicians were already beginning to destroy German equipment, the first step in Operation Eclipse, the disarmament of Nazi Germany. At some installations, men working for Col. Harold E. Watson, commander of the Army Air Forces’ Air Technical Intelligence Group, dubbed “Watson’s Whizzers,” were seizing rather than destroying machines of war, including examples of the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter. Watson and his men were undertaking Operation Lusty—a word derived from “Luftwaffe secret technology”—to capture and exploit Nazi technology.

Jodl had not been a big proponent of the Me 262. He was, after all, an artillery officer and did not yet realize that the artillery of the future would unleash its fury from the sky.

September 30, 1945

The jet fighter pursued its shadow across the apron at Freeman Field, Indiana. It sliced through the air at high speed just two hundred feet above the ground.

The war had ended. Adolf Hitler was dead. The thousand-year Third Reich lay in ruins after just a dozen years. Yet the Messerschmitt Me 262 still had a menacing, predatory look and still flew with deliberate purpose. It was never taken for granted and it never ceased to turn heads.

At the controls was Watson. The Americans had given this particular captured Me 262 a name. They called it Jabo Bait. Another Me 262, a two-seater, which the Americans dubbed Ole Fruit Cake, was on display on the ground alongside an Arado Ar 234. Captured German equipment was everywhere. Freeman Field was handling the overflow of captured Axis equipment from Wright Field.

In a speech prepared for delivery many years later, Watson wrote, “When I first saw the Me 262 I was spellbound. Just sitting there on the ground it looked as though it was doing Mach 1,” the speed of sound.

Watson was a Wright Field test pilot and engineer who had been given the job of exploiting German technology and recovering examples of the Third Reich’s advanced aircraft and weapons. He was usually self-effacing and unpretentious. He was just the right man to be in charge of Lusty. And now, buzzing the ground, turning heads, howling across Freeman Field, Watson was celebrating his triumph: He had rounded up dozens of German aircraft, including a remarkable large transport (below), and turned them over to U.S. technicians and scientists. His small band of handpicked “Whizzers” had picked the low-hanging fruit of the defeated Luftwaffe and had quietly and discreetly brought it back to America.

Now the time for secrecy had passed. Now, it was time to celebrate.

Watson’s low-level demo flight was made in front of a viewing stand full of political, scientific, and technical leaders, all feasting their eyes on the German jet fighter for the first time. In addition to bigwigs, about three hundred print and radio journalists were on the scene. One later said he was unnerved by the lethal appearance of the Me 262. More than a few noticed that the Me 262 was about as capable as the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star—the American jet fighter Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold was attempting to save amid a postwar consensus that it was time to sharply reduce U.S. military spending.

The public apparently was not invited to this Freeman Field event, although subsequent events at the same location showed off Watson’s war prizes to all. Among those who were invited, though, was German Me 262 test pilot Karl Baur, who in a matter of weeks had become a sort of buddy of Watson’s, as well as his tutor on the cockpit and instrument layout of the jet. Bauer is the bookend of this narrative. He was at the air show at Insterburg on November 26, 1943, with the Führer. He was at the air show at Freeman Field on September 30, 1945, with Watson. It appears—although we cannot be certain, even from his own papers—that Baur was at Wright Field two weeks later.

As in the aftermath of all wars, treatment of the defeated foe was uneven and inequitable. The artillery officer Jodl, linked to killings of prisoners, was tried for war crimes at Nuremburg and hanged. He may have been a victim of history gone awry. A German court later exonerated him.

Baur, who was an aviation person rather than a warrior, taught Watson and other “Whizzers” how to fly the Me 262 and socialized with them.

October 13, 1945

The Army Air Forces did invite the public to the air force fair at Wright Field, Ohio, on the weekend of October 13 and 14, 1945. The public came in droves. Watson came. Karl Baur came. The Me 262 was there and the P-80 was there. Arnold’s staff flew up from Washington in a special plane. The German jet was a bigger attraction for the audience than the American jet. Arnold, who was in poor health, considered giving some kind of speech over the PA system and concluded that it wasn’t practical to promote the P-80 at a family fun event.

In this era before metal detectors, before photo ID, before guards at the main gate, thousands of civilians brought their cameras and their lunches. There was music. There was cotton candy. People crowded around among displays—some outdoors, some in tents. They included a Heinkel He 162 Volksjäger, a Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet, and many other war prizes. The magnificent Junkers Ju 290 dubbed Alles Kaput (Everything’s Lost) was on display—a plane that would have made a wonderful museum piece but was soon, instead, to be scrapped in a senseless act of needless destruction. Beside this great and magnificent transport plane, not fully removed from its packing crate, was a pristine example of the ill-advised and ill-fated Bachem Ba 349 Natter.

The show also included a twin-prop Junkers Ju 388L, a Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero, and a Kugisho Ohka, the plane known to the Americans as the Baka (Fool) and designed to be dropped from a bomber on a one-way suicide mission with an explosive charge in the nose. “They were letting guys climb in and out of the ‘Baka’ and allowing them to close the canopy over their heads,” said veteran army pilot Robert Bush, home from the war and attending the air show as a tourist. “It was amazing to see the remarkable diversity of the captured weapons on display, but for me the star was the Me 262.”

In his head, Bush acted out a dogfight that had never taken place, putting himself in an American P-51 Mustang and imagining his opponent in an Me 262, an aircraft he had not seen during the fighting.

He walked among the aircraft. They did not seem warlike, even with their iron crosses and swastikas restored by American painters. He came upon the He 162, which he had witnessed from a distance during a combat mission. “Up close, it seemed so ordinary,” Bush said. “Their other jet was more impressive. That great big transport of theirs was a lot more impressive.” Bush never realized that he might have passed a German jet test pilot in the crowd.

The air force fair at Wright Field was—it’s worth making this metaphor a second time—an unintentional bookend to the display at Insterburg only twenty-three months ago that had been held for an audience of one, Adolf Hitler. Karl Baur, the Me 262 test pilot who attended both events, came into U.S. hands and became a de facto member of “Watson’s Whizzers” when the Allies captured Augsburg, home of the Messerschmitt plant (on April 29, 1945), after Baur decided not to accompany Willy Messerschmitt to Oberammergau.

The Americans required Baur and his crew to repair the Me 262s that had been damaged and to instruct American pilots in their operation. Along with other German experts in the field of aeronautics and rocketry, Baur was sent to the United States in fall of 1945. He arrived at Wright Field on September 24, 1945, reached Freeman Field three days later, and returned to Wright Field. Never involved in any of the heinous wrongdoing by the Nazi regime, Baur was able to return to Germany and reunite with his family in December 1945.

May-September 1945

Watson and his team were in Germany even before VE Day (May 8, 1945), rounding up aircraft to be taken home and evaluated by U.S. intelligence. The crown jewel of their efforts was the Me 262, which had an enormous influence on postwar technology. Other choices by the team seem difficult to understand: the “Whizzers” probably would have learned little from the three Bf 109Gs they rounded up. Along the way, Watson’s men grabbed up a Junker Ju 290 transport, which was a wonderful curiosity but perhaps not more or less by accident.

Watson shipped several dozen German aircraft back to the United States by sea. Many contributed knowledge that helped with early U.S. jets. The design team working on the North American XP-86 fighter, which became the F-86 Sabre, had access to the Me 262.

The Arado Ar 234 did not elude Watson’s Whizzers and other Allied intelligence collectors. Fully nine Ar 234s were surrendered to British forces at Sola Airfield near Stavanger, Norway. Watson’s team collected several of them. One aircraft was flown from Sola to Cherbourg, France, on June 24, 1945, where it joined thirty-four other advanced German aircraft being shipped back to the United States aboard the British aircraft carrier HMS ReaperReaper departed from Cherbourg on July 20, arriving at Newark, New Jersey, eight days later.

Watson’s pilots took two Ar 234s from the Reaper to Freeman Field, Indiana, for testing and evaluation. The fate of the second Ar 234 flown to Freeman Field is unknown. A third Ar 234 was taken off the Reaper and assembled by the U.S. Navy for testing, but was found to be unflyable and was scrapped. The first aircraft to be grabbed up by Watson, the only surviving example in this series, the Ar 234B-2 bomber is today on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, at Dulles, Virginia, replete with rocket-assisted takeoff, or RATO, units.

Neither Watson’s Whizzers nor any other Allied intelligence officials ever found any clue to the foo fighters, mysterious disks that bomber crewmembers observed in flight over the Reich. They remain unexplained phenomena in the minds of most and a sign of extraterrestrial intelligence to a few. The Air Force Historical Office at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, has records of claimed foo fighter sightings by P-61 Black Widow night-fighter pilots but no record of the foo fighters reported over Schweinfurt by Martin Caidin.

The Ju 290 was impressive but was hardly a technical treasure. It fell into Watson’s hands more or less by accident. On May 8, 1945, a Luftwaffe pilot landed the plane at Munich-Riem Airport, which was in the hands of U.S. troops. The pilot surrendered himself, the plane, and a planeload of women auxiliary members of the German air arm. All had flown to Munich from Czechoslovakia, eager to be captured by the Americans rather than the Soviets.

Watson decided to take the Ju 290 to the United States.

It’s not clear why. The Ju 290 was a sturdy, practical machine but hardly the latest technology. At best, it might give U.S. experts a look at how Germany had designed a very large aircraft.

Watson and his men confronted a steep learning curve with a plane designed and built in another country. With help from the German pilot, Watson flew the Ju 290 to an airfield near Nuremberg on May 10, 1945.

Watson and others made several test hops in the big plane. Surprised to find the Ju 290 in relatively good condition, Watson decided that he would fly the Ju 290 back to Wright Field.

July 28, 1945

With Capt. Fred McIntosh as copilot and eight more crewmembers aboard, Watson departed Orly Field, Paris, France, on July 28, 1945, to fly the Ju 290 to the United States. By this time, the Americans had painted the name Alles Kaput on the nose and had replaced German insignia with U.S. markings.

At their first stop during the flight, Santa Maria Island in the Azores, Watson and McIntosh had a chance to show the Ju 290 to AAF boss Arnold, who happened to be passing through. The flight continued to Bermuda and proceeded directly to Wright Field.

Repainted in German markings for display purposes, the Ju 290 was tested exhaustively and was displayed at open houses and air shows in 1945 and 1946. By the end of 1946, however, this unusual plane was grounded and was being dismantled for specialized study.

The air force was still a branch of the army at that time, and there was no museum program that would provide a resting place for this unusual example of war booty. Alles Kaput was scrapped on December 12, 1946. “It would be of interest to a lot of people today,” said David W. Menard, a restorer at the Air Force Museum. “It’s a pity that an intriguing aircraft like this couldn’t have been preserved.”

The Reich’s jet designs strongly influenced the B-47 Stratojet and F-86 Sabre, the most important American bomber and fighter of the immediate postwar period—and, indeed, almost everything that U.S. industry produced after VE Day. Watson’s Whizzers and other intelligence collectors scooped up vast quantities of material on German jets, especially the Me 262. U.S. industry also received help from German engineers brought to the United States in Operation Paperclip, the Office of Strategic Services program that recruited scientists and technical experts of Nazi Germany for employment in the United States. No fewer than eighty-six aeronautical experts from the Reich were transferred to Wright Field, where they provided background knowledge for Me 262s and other items of hardware. The knowledge base, the men, and the captured equipment were lent out to U.S. plane makers, who were eager to overcome an expected postwar slump in business. They would be recovering from one of the great industrial miracles in history.

In separate rocketry and space programs, the United States made use of Operation Paperclip immigrants such as Wernher von Braun, who thrived and prospered in postwar America while men deemed less valuable were prosecuted for war crimes. Von Braun was never held to account for abiding slave labor.

The Germans came to an America with high standards of education and literacy, and thriving industry. In a single year during the war (1944), America’s aircraft manufacturing capacity produced just slightly fewer than one hundred thousand warplanes. The heroic machinery of the American heartland demonstrated how true, how prophetic, was a warning often attributed to Japan’s Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto. Rather than winning a victory at Pearl Harbor, Yamamoto supposedly warned his fellow officers the attack had merely “awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.” It hardly matters that Yamamoto never said those words, which were created by a screenwriter for the movie Tora Tora Tora (1970). The quote accurately reflects the views of Japanese leaders during an era—now gone—when the United States led the world in almost every field of endeavor.

At Dearborn, Michigan, the Ford company was turning out a new B-24 Liberator bomber every fifty-one minutes. At Bethpage, New York, Grumman was in the midst of delivering 12,275 F6F Hellcat fighters in just thirty months. In Inglewood, California, North American’s plant produced Mitchell bombers and Mustang fighters so rapidly the aircraft sat waiting, row after row, while Army Air Forces worked in a frenzy to get them delivered. American factories, workers, and products set a standard for the world.

While the war was being won, American leadership in science (for the word technology was not yet widely used) brought astounding change. It was rumored that a time machine was being developed at the Philadelphia navy yard. It was true that a new bomb of incredible power was being assembled in a remote village in New Mexico. Radical new warplanes were taking shape with both propeller and jet-engine power.

So dominant was American industry that it could afford a luxury: far more experimental planes were built and tested than were needed to win the war. In the California desert at a bleak, sandy outpost called Muroc, bizarre pursuit ships were flying with strange wing shapes and different engines. The Curtiss XP-55 Ascender was pushed, rather than pulled, through the air (by a propeller) and boasted a swept-back wing. The Bell P-59A Airacomet was trucked to the desert with a fake propeller glued to its nose (to fool watching gophers and rattlesnakes) but flew without one. It was a time of miracles. American know-how dominated the world.

But science advanced elsewhere, too. For all their achievements, American engineers could not match German accomplishments in military aviation. The world’s most powerful nation, while still planning to unleash the fury of the atomic bomb, is usually listed third among nations producing jet airplanes. The Soviet Union—a backward nation, in so many other ways—was advancing at about the Americans’ pace and was hoarding its own cache of German documents, equipment, and scientists.

At the North American Aviation (NAA) facility in Inglewood, the company’s confidential design group, under Edgar Schmued, was pondering radically new versions of the P-51 Mustang, which had established itself as one of the most important fighters of World War II. Some of the impetus for Schmued’s design effort came from the U.S. Navy, which test-flew a P-51D Mustang from the carrier USS Shangri-la (CV-38) in 1944. Looking for a new carrier-based fighter that would exploit the Mustang’s proven qualities, Schmued and his colleagues studied several advanced concepts, including a Mustang with swept-forward wings and both turboprop and turbojet power.

The navy said no. Instead, the sea service pressed NAA for a wholly new but far from radical jet fighter, the XFJ-1, later named the Fury. The navy also went ahead with the Grumman F9F Panther, the last carrier-based fighter built in large numbers that did not benefit from German jet technology: the Panther was straight-winged, slow, and clunky. But it was reliable and performed reasonably well on ships’ decks.

To maintain full advantage of its very thin, high-speed wing, the Fury was to have a circular nose engine air intake and straight-through ducting, rather than the side or wing air inlets chosen for the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, McDonnell XFD-1 Phantom, and Vought XF6U-1 Pirate. Among American jet designs of the period, only the Republic XP-84 Thunderjet had a circular nose air intake. The Soviets, who were wining and dining their own German engineers, used this feature on their MiG-9 and—very importantly—their MiG-15 fighters.

In 1945, the AAF studied the navy’s yet-unbuilt Fury, including its thin, straight wing. The AAF gave its aircraft the designation XP-86. It was later named the Sabre.

On May 18, 1945, just a fortnight after fighting ended in Europe and while the war was continuing in the Pacific, NAA received an AAF contract for three XP-86 prototypes. But designers at Inglewood began to think of making a change when they came into possession of German wind-tunnel data that had been obtained by U. S. technical intelligence experts. Schmued’s engineers were already aware of the Me 262 and now they knew more about it.

Larry Green, NAA’s head of Design Aerodynamics, began attending night school, sharpening his fluency in the German language so he could pore through the wind-tunnel reports. Green also studied interrogations of captured German scientists and engineers. A little later, Green and others on the Sabre project met with German experts.

Finally, a captured Me 262 became available for rigorous study by Schmued’s Inglewood team. A pile of documents, a real Me 262, and Green’s fast-improving German proficiency all accelerated the pace of change at North American. Engineers, military officers, and corporate decision makers alike, seemingly all struck by a bolt from above, came to the realization that the lackluster performance of the Sabre could be improved strikingly with a swept wing. They were unaware that in the Soviet Union an identical decision had been reached with respect to the future MiG-15.

A thirty-five-degree sweep 5.0-aspect ratio wing with full span leading slats was quickly built and tested in September 1945 on the XP-86 model in North American’s low-speed wind tunnel. It had been expected that the wing would show instability at high lift coefficients, and it did, but engineers determined that satisfactory stalling characteristics could be achieved with the slats.

The proposal to overhaul the XP-86 design and install a swept wing was prepared under the watchful eye of AAF project engineer Capt. Roy Mann. NAA’s Raymond H. Rice discussed the concept with Gen. William Craigie, head of research and development at Wright Field. Told that installing a new wing would cause a six-month delay in the first flight of what had seemed, so far, a mediocre performer, Craigie said, “Go ahead.” The swept wing was officially approved on November 1, 1945.

Even then, the swept-wing XP-86 was to have straight tail surfaces. Details of the leading-edge slat design were debated intensely. Eventually, again based on German data, vertical and horizontal tail surfaces were also swept.

As of November 1, 1945, when many projects were being cancelled after war’s end and the AAF was chopping off on a swept-wing XP-86, no warplane with fully swept wings had yet proven successful. Schmued, Rice, and Green did not know about the Soviet MiG-15, only months behind them.

The XP-86 initially was to be powered by a Chevrolet-built, General Electric–designed J35-C-3 or Allison J35-A-5 axial-flow turbojet engine with four thousand–pound (1,816 kilograms) thrust (originally designated TG-180). The first three XP-86 aircraft were unarmed.

Test pilot for the new fighter, as on many NAA aircraft of the period, was George Welch. At Pearl Harbor, “Wheaties” Welch had gotten aloft in a P-40 Tomahawk and had shot down four of the Japanese attackers. He’d become an air ace in the Pacific theater, raising his total to sixteen kills, before joining North American in 1944.

On September 18, 1947, the AAF became the U.S. Air Force, an independent service branch. That week, NAA trucked the XP-86 prototype from Inglewood to the air force’s remote desert installation at Muroc.

Some of what went on at Muroc was secretive—think Bob Hoover making the one and only test flight in a captured Heinkel He 162—but much was not. Used for training and checkout of P-38 Lightning pilots and initial flying of other hazardous aircraft from 1941 on, the base was quite primitive. The P-38 transition was accomplished here so that Los Angeles’ congested areas would be spared the frequent crashes by newly graduated fighter pilots.

Muroc had been a secluded hideaway for secret tests of weird and mysterious airplanes, among them the previously-mentioned Curtiss XP-55 Ascender pusher-prop fighter with swept wings developed years before German data on wing sweep was available. Now, Welch made the first flight of the first XP-86 on October 1, 1947, at Muroc. Years later, the myth would be perpetrated that Welch flew faster than sound before Capt. Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager achieved that feat two weeks later on October 14. Based on dozens of interviews with people who worked on the XP-86 program at the time, the author of this book is certain Welch did not fly supersonic before Yeager. But Welch did have in his hands the prototype of what would be the most successful jet fighter in the West in the 1940s and in the Korean War, and the Me 262 had a lot to do with it.

June 25, 1950

The North Korean invasion across the 38th Parallel ignited a new war. The term recall became all too painfully familiar to former American fighter pilots who’d thought their war was over, who’d come home, started families, and launched careers.

Robert Bush returned to southeast Washington, D.C., married, and had a daughter. He told friends he would never climb into a cockpit again. Like the German with a similar name, Hans Busch, Robert had become a seasoned fighter pilot in combat during the war but wasn’t credited with shooting down any aircraft. He considered himself a citizen-soldier. He was working part-time and doing university study when he received the notice that the United States needed him in uniform again. He was brought back into uniform to fly a new jet fighter, the F-86 Sabre, originally the XP-86. As it turned out, Bush, like many recalled during Korea, didn’t actually go to Korea—he spent two years boring holes in the sky in the American Southwest and then never climbed into a cockpit again. However, the two German-influenced jet fighters on opposite sides, the F-86 and the MiG-15, did make it to Korea.

November 8, 1950

Russell Brown pulled out of his sharp dive with a MiG-15 falling away. He remained in the air force, retired as a colonel, and almost never appeared in public to discuss his role in history’s first jet-versus-jet encounter.

On November 10, 1950, two days after Brown’s encounter, Lt. Cdr. William Thomas Amen, pilot of a Navy F9F-2 Panther, was credited with shooting down a MiG-15. Years later, Soviet records confirmed that Amen did, indeed, bag the MiG and that its pilot, Mikhail Grachev, was killed. Although credit for history’s first jet-versus-jet kill officially belongs to Brown, the credit to Brown is a mistake. Amen was the first pilot to shoot down another aircraft in jet-versus-jet combat.

December 4, 1950

Another American jet that had been designed before German technology became available—a straight-winged, four-jet North American RB-45C Tornado reconnaissance aircraft. It became the first plane of any kind ever to be shot down by a MiG-15.

Soviet pilot Aleksandr F. Andrianov received credit for the kill. Copilot Capt. Jules E. Young and navigator 1st Lt. James J. Picucci lost their lives in the shootdown. RB-45C pilot Capt. Charles E. McDonough and a Pentagon intelligence officer, Col. John R. Lovell are thought to have bailed out, landed on the North Korean side of the Yalu River, been interrogated by the Soviets, and were subsequently murdered. Lovell was the highest-ranking intelligence officer to be lost during the Korean War.

December 17, 1950

The F-86 Sabre had arrived in Korea. Lieutenant Colonel Bruce H. Hinton, piloting an F-86, shot down a MiG-15. It was the first battle between aircraft that were both influenced by German design. It was the beginning of a thirty-month aerial campaign in which the F-86 would prevail mostly because of the skill of its pilots, racking up a seven-to-one kill ratio over the MiG.

January 27, 1957

It ends here, in the rain.

Outside the main gate of the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) along the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C., the author of this volume—age seventeen, a high school senior, and already published—arrives to look at two pieces of junk that were once airplanes. Now, they are skeletons of rust, derelict, moistened by the drizzle that hangs in the air.

There is not yet a “warbird movement.” No one is yet restoring surplus military aircraft and flying them in military markings. Nor is there a movement, yet, to build and fly replicas of Germany’s most famous jet. That will come in a new century. A real Messerschmitt Me 262 will never again take to the air.

Outside the NRL gate, missing pieces of skin, literally falling apart, wet in the rain, in pitiful, forlorn condition, are a Japanese Kawanishi N1K1 Shiden (Violet Lightning) fighter, called a “George” by the Americans, and a Messerschmitt Me 262A-1a Schwalbe. In years to come, the George would be saved, refurbished, restored, and displayed in a museum.

The Me 262 would not.

Other Me 262s, none of them airworthy, made it to museums. This one didn’t.

When I climbed over that Me 262, sat in what remained of the cockpit, and walked on what was left of the wing, it never occurred to me that I might be among the last people to see it. When I pulled out my Ricoh 35mm camera, back in that era when such a camera was a rarity, it never struck me that I might be among the last people to take a picture of it. Thanks to spotters who keep track of such things, we know that Watson’s Whizzers named this Me 262 Delovely and that it was assigned the U.S. Navy bureau number 121444, but we do not know its German werke number. We know that the U.S. Navy received it; held it at Patuxent River, Maryland; and studied it at the Naval Proving Ground in Dahlgren, Virginia—but never flew it. One reference work asserts that it was scrapped at Naval Air Station Anacostia in 1947, a decade before I climbed all over it. Another reports that it was displayed at the naval air station, which is a few miles down the road from the NRL, on the other side of Bolling Air Force Base—but it never was.

We do not know what happened to it.

In my fanciful daydreams, that Me 262 is flying around through a dry, bright, blue sky somewhere, not as a weapon of war but as a miracle of aviation, a beautifully performing aircraft that doesn’t deserve to have disappeared without a trace.

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