A MUSTANG BASE, Jan. 24—The P-51B is the most successful secret weapon of the war—and it was a secret everyone knew about.
In 15 missions over enemy territory a lone Mustang group has destroyed 41 German planes for the loss of six of its own, and has safely shepherded an inestimable number of heavy bombers to and from Germany.
This single, All-American fighter group under command of 27 year-old Col. Kenneth R. Martin, of Kansas City, Mo., came as an experiment to this toughest of war theater, and has done things that the Germans haven't even claimed for their Buck Rogers rocket ships. It has gone places that mere mention of which would have caused any experienced RAF Spitfire pilot to laugh ten months ago. (Fighters just didn't go 450 miles into Germany).
And not one of the six Mustangs missing was lost to enemy fighter action. Col. Martin attributes these losses to mechanical difficulties bound to come up in several thousand hours of anyone's flying time.
Tells the Story
Figuring that a good percentage of pilots of the lost Ships got out before they crashed, 1/Lt. Henry E. Fisk, of Spokane, Wash., one of the Mustang airmen, with 12 missions, tells his group's story:
"While we have a few 'extra hot' pilots, most of us, I guess, are average fliers. The two secrets of our success so far are the P51 itself and our training. We got together as a group flying P39s on the Pacific coast 14 months ago, and most of us have been together ever since.
"We started off with two light operations over here, taking in a couple of northern France sweeps at first. On Dec. 11 we went to Emden, and two days later to Kiel.
That is where we showed we could go to a target right in Germany and stick around to fight and protect the bombers. I have a strong feeling for those guys in the Forts and Libs. They have to wade right through that flak and stuff. I see red when the Nazis queue up on a straggling bomber."
Since Dec. 13, almost all the Mustang missions have been "in Germany" penetrations, working up to a climax in the multiple operation against the Oscher-sleben-Halberstadt-Brunswick, at Berlin's front door.
Operational experience in the ETO adds up to a little over six weeks to date, but this Mustang group already has its quota of topflight records.
In one scrap over Germany, 2/Lt. Edward R. Ryan, of Los Angeles, shot down an Me110, and was maneuvering back up to the bombers when he noticed another German riding on the tail of his wingman, 2/Lt. Don McDowell, also of Los Angeles.
"That shot was too easy for Jerry," Ryan said, "and since I didn't have time to get behind him, I decided to scoot between the two and draw off the German's fire. I figured a deflection shot at me would never score." Ryan went between his wingman and the enemy pursuit—and returned to base with his tail completely riddled by bullets.
Col. Martin, a senior pilot who joined the Army Air Forces in February, 1937, got his first plane, an Me109, on the New Year's Eve attack in France.
The group executive, Lt. Col. Wallace Mace, of Salt Lake City, and a squadron CO, Maj. George B. Bickell, of Nutley, N.J., were in Hawaii when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Capt. Carl P. Giles, operations officer from Salem. Ore., flew on combat from Clark Field in the Philippines when the Japs came over, and was one of the first pilots in this war to be awarded the DSC. Maj. James H. Howard, of St. Louis, who achieved fame for his solo battle with 30 Nazis Jan. 11, was with the AVG under Maj. Gen. Claire Chennault, and Capt. Robert L. Priser, of Tucson, Ariz., another squadron commander, was with the Eagle Squadron.
While the average pilot speaks about his airplane in superlatives, Mustang men add a distinctive emphasis to their descriptions. Maj. Howard talks about range and others point out that 40 of the 41 airplanes they have shot down since Dec. 1 were destroyed at least 300 miles from their home base.
1/Lt. Robert W. Stephens, of St. Louis, flew formation for awhile with an Me 110 after his guns had gone out, while his wing man, 1/Lt. Lowell K. Brueland, of Callendar, Ia., came up behind and shot down the Jerry. Stephens, who now knows how the German looks close up, talks especially about the Mustang's maneuverability. "It'll out-turn anything," he said. And others agree on the ship's superiority over everything the enemy has thrown against it.
A Look at the Record
When general flying and fighting ability are discussed, the P51 people simply quote the records:
In this group's last two major encounters with the enemy - over Kiel on Jan. 5 and Oschersleben on Jan. 11 - the Mustangs destroyed 33 Germans, probably destroyed nine more, and damaged an additional 12. Some of them were peppered with enemy bullets, but not a single P51B was lost.
The story of the Mustang, the first military plane to be developed in America in this war, is one of a hot low-level attack plane that developed into an all-round high and low-altitude aircraft capable of anything, from escorting bombers to bombing on its own.
The original Mustang was manufactured in small numbers for the RAF. That was in November, 1941. On May 10, 1942, it made its first combat mission over an airdrome on the French coast, shooting up a freight train and two lorries on the way home. Some RAF pilots became enthusiastic, but others said, "Well, just another American fighter." One Eagle Squadron pilot, in talks to American aviation cadets in the States in the summer of 1942, called the P51 "another good plane — that is, good for operational training."
A Success in the South
In the Mediterranean theater, Americans flew the original ship for the first time, achieving successes in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. The present Mustang model was manufactured for the first time last spring, and made its debut over Europe when Col. Martin took his group to France Dec. 1.
It is powered with a 1,500 horsepower Packard-manufactured Rolls Royce Merlin engine, includes a two-stage, two-speed supercharger for altitude, has an updraft carburetor, a four-blade propeller, and racks under each wing which can carry either 500-lb. bombs or drop-tanks, each capable of holding 75 gallons of gasoline.
Ground-crew chiefs who have been servicing Allison engines say the Merlin is a more difficult engine to maintain than the old Allison, but add, "The pilots say this ship has no bugs, and they have gone completely overboard on it. That is good enough for us."
Weighing about 9,000 pounds, the Mustang is 32 feet three inches long, 13 feet eight inches high and has a wing span of 37 feet. Its propeller blades are 11 feet two inches long.
Big Difference Here
"The pilots really have a feeling for their ground crews over here," Col. Martin said. "Back home it was hard to get them to keep the windshield clean enough to see through, but over here they even shine the footpedals.
"Home, we were often forced down on long flights because of engine trouble, but here, where the mechanics know that our lives depend on their work, they are wonderful. If they see a speck of dust on the canopy over your head that they think might in any way affect your chances of getting home, they get the speck off."
The most common term heard in this station's "ready" rooms about the Mustang is "dream ship."
Some day, just for sport, the P51 pilots would like to set up an aerial derby day. They would like to start at scratch with seven other planes, all of which at one time or another have been called "the fastest plane in the world," and let everyone see how they come out. They'd like to race the Typhoon, Mosquito, Spitfire, P38, P47, FW190 and Me109.
There would be more money on that race than on the famous Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race, and the P51 people smile at what they insist they know the results would be.