When a Thunderbolt was a Thunderbeast

Well, that’s not the true name of the P-47, known as the Thunderbolt, but there were a few times when the aircraft treated its pilots as if it were a beast.  Such was the case on 11 May 1944, when Lt. Willis R. Walling of the 404th Fighter Squadron took off from Ibsley Airfield in P-47D-20-RE, serial number 42-76391, for a combat mission aimed at occupied France.

404th Fighter Squadron pilots gather for a photo in the spring of 1944, possibly taken at Bisterne Airfield's camp area.  Standing, left to right are H. Robson (only partially visible), I. Killingsworth, S. Greer, W. Walling, L. Hammer, H. Gilmer, H. Strahlendorf, W. Bunce, W. Richter, R. Stoddard, H. Wagner and R. Haney. Kneeling left to right are L. Scott, J. LaRochelle, G. O'Toole, J. Green, W. Brown, G. Banks, and J. Cassells.  In front, left to right are L. Myles, and K. Cobb.

404th Fighter Squadron pilots gather for a photo in the spring of 1944, possibly taken at Bisterne Airfield’s camp area. Standing, left to right are H. Robson (only partially visible), I. Killingsworth, S. Greer, W. Walling, L. Hammer, H. Gilmer, H. Strahlendorf, W. Bunce, W. Richter, R. Stoddard, H. Wagner and R. Haney. Kneeling left to right are L. Scott, J. LaRochelle, G. O’Toole, J. Green, W. Brown, G. Banks, and J. Cassells. In front, left to right are L. Myles, and K. Cobb. (Source:  “The Story of the 371st Fighter Group in the E.T.O.” via Mr. Francis E. Madore)

Time up for the group was 1335 hours that day, 30 Thunderbolts (with a total of 60 500-lb GP bombs) off to dive bomb the marshalling yard of Tourcoing, France, with 16 more P-47’s as escort for the dive bombers on Frisky’s Mission No. 11, as tasked in Field Order No. 242.*  The group launched, then formed up over the field before setting out on the mission, but about 20 minutes after takeoff, an explosion occurred in Lt. Walling’s P-47, one of the escorts, a blast which momentarily knocked him out.  People on the ground saw fire spurt from his plane.  “I found myself out of formation and back down to 1200 feet,” he remembered about the incident.

Frantic calls from squadron members told him to bail out, and Lt. Walling started to answer when a second explosion stunned him.  Somewhat disoriented by the concussion, he came to again at about 500 feet as his aircraft approached the southeast section of the field; he was too low to bail out and instead made an effort to land his ship.  Walling “…saw the Brit’s houses below and managed to fly between two of them, and through a tree,” he added.

Ibsley Airfield, where the 371st Fighter Group temporarily flew from in the spring of 1944 when the home field at Bisterne was under repair.  (Wikipedia)

Ibsley Airfield, where the 371st Fighter Group temporarily flew from in the spring of 1944 when the home field at Bisterne was under repair. (Wikipedia)

“My wheels were down, but I did not recall lowering them,” Lt. Walling said.  “Then I saw this hay covered house in front of me, so I slipped the plane to the right, missed the house (which I later learned had 12 people inside), and bounced off an empty meeting house…” Walling remembered.  “(I) landed on the Women’s Sunday afternoon meeting A frame hut that cushioned my fall without killing any Brits or (hitting) the school house close by.”

After his aircraft struck the building, it came down onto the edge of the field in a crash landing, knocking him out yet again.  As the aircraft started burning, flames reached the cockpit area and began to burn Lt. Walling; he awakened and jumped out of the burning ship.  “I came to with my oxygen mask burning, pulled it and some skin off, tried to exit the cockpit but my legs wouldn’t lift me, so I pushed with both hands on the side of my plane until I hit the ground,” he recalled.  He made it only a short distance before collapsing from his injuries.  “I have no memory of what happened after that until waking up three days later in the hospital…”  Members of a British anti-aircraft gun unit at the field pulled him clear and he was taken to the base hospital where he was treated for his wounds.

What had happened?  It seems that Lt. Walling was the victim of a design flaw of sorts in the Thunderbolt related to the aircraft’s battery, which was located low behind the engine, in front of the firewall, just below a fuel line that lead to the engine’s carburetor.  Periodically Thunderbolts had mysteriously exploded in the air, and no one knew why; eventually the problem was traced to the aircraft battery.  When used to start the aircraft, the battery was heavily drained.  Then, on takeoff or when the throttle was pushed forward in high power settings, the battery went into charge mode, and could overcharge, overheat, and sometimes explode.  If the fuel line was ruptured, or if there was already any fuel leakage, then another explosion could occur, either one with potentially catastrophic results.  At that point in the Thunderbolt’s service career, Lt. Wallis recollected that maybe 63 P-47 pilots had been lost from mid-air explosions.  He very nearly became number 64.  For a more detailed look at this P-47 battery problem, see Kenneth Murphy’s account “How many Jug pilots died before this problem was solved?” at:

Jug Battery Problem

Lt. Walling suffered from internal bleeding, torn stomach muscles and could not move his torso in any direction.  “After two weeks in hospital I could stand and walk with crutches, thanks to a 40 year old volunteer nurse,” he recollected.  The doctor didn’t think he could fly again, and there was a recommendation to send him back to the States.  But Walling persuaded the group commander to let him convalesce in England, which he did, and his condition eventually improved enough that he could move without support, though getting back into the cockpit of a Jug required a little help from the aircraft’s crew chief and assistant.  You can see more details of Willis Walling’s harrowing experience in his account “Better Late Than Never,” at:

Better Late Than Never

By June, 1944, with grit and determination, Lt. Willis R. Walling made it back into the cockpit of the Jug and flew combat operations, seeing action with the group through the Normandy campaign.  You can read more about his P-47 experience at:

http://p47pilots.com/P47-Pilots.cfm?c=incP47BiographyHome.cfm&vm=BIO&pilotid=567&p=Willis%20R.%20Walling
* The 371st Fighter Group‘s mission continued without Lt. Walling that day. The group, led by C.O. Lt. Col. Kleine, made it to the target area but due to haze could not identify it and diverted to an alternate target. They ended up pummeling the airdrome believed to be Merville (possibly Merville-Calonne), about 20 miles west of Tourcoing. (Note: HQ for the German 15th Army was located inside Tourcoing city)

References:

371FG History for May, 1944

404FS History for May, 1944

“The Story of the 371st Fighter Group in the E.T.O.” Army & Navy Pictorial Publishers, Baton Rouge, LA, 1946

Correspondence with Willis R. Walling, various dates

Walling, Willis R., “Better Late Than Never,” 361st Fighter Group Newsletter, unidentified date (approximately 2008), page 6 (via Capt. Willis Walling)

Murphy, Kenneth G., “How many Jug pilots died before this problem was solved?” Jug Letter, Volume XXXVIII, No. 1, Fall 2005, page 18 (via Capt. Willis Walling)

P-47 Thunderbolt Pilots Association website, biography for Willis R. Walling, at: http://p47pilots.com/P47-Pilots.cfm?c=incP47BiographyHome.cfm&vm=BIO&pilotid=567&p=Willis%20R.%20Walling

P-47 Thunderbolt Database listing with P-47D-20-RE S/N 42-76391 entry, at: http://p-47.database.pagesperso-orange.fr/Database/42-7xxxx.htm

Merville Airfield information, at: http://www.ronaldv.nl/abandoned/airfields/FR/calais/nord.html

German 15th Army HQ information, at: http://users.telenet.be/Atlantikwall-15tharmy/15th_armytext.htm

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