THUNDERBOLT!


It has been described as the most effective killing machine of World War II, and it was operated by just one very young pilot. Fully loaded for combat, as this plane is, the P-47 Thunderbolt weighed close to 10 tons, and it could deliver a wide variety of weapons to almost any target in Germany. If the young pilots who flew these juggernauts lived long enough to develop their skills, they could actually determine the outcome of battles. And with the amount of firepower they possessed, they could destroy almost any target they attacked. Usually they would drop their two 500 lb bombs first. This would get rid of a lot of weight, and make them more maneuverable. Then they would use their rockets, which by October 1944 had become more powerful, and could be fired with greater accuracy. They were deadly against tanks, trains, trucks, river shipping, artillery positions, and troop concentrations. But the most deadly weapons they carried for killing enemy troops were the eight .50 caliber machine guns mounted in the wings. Combined, they could fire close to 100 rounds per second.

The Thunderbolt was the largest fighter plane used in World War II, but it was also as fast as any conventional fighter plane to see action. At high altitudes, it had no equal, and no plane could stay with it in a dive. Its record in air-to-air combat against the Germans was equal to that of the P-51 Mustang , even though the P-47s fought against the best of the Luftwaffe pilots before the P-51s arrived on the scene in large numbers. I flew over 60 missions in P-47s, 11 missions in P-51s, and even had three missions in P-38s. They were all great airplanes, but for the low-level, close ground support missions that were the main part of my combat world, the P-47 won hands down.

Most fighter planes in World War II were operated by one man only. He was pilot, navigator, bombardier, gunner, and radio operator. It was a demanding job, and required a man who could be trained to develop a wide variety of skills – and in a short period of time. But he also had to be very aggressive, and willing to put his life on the line to destroy an important target. Confidence had to be one of his major traits – he had to feel he was capable of doing almost anything. But if he was wounded, there was no one to help him get back to base. If his wounds were too serious for him to be able to fly or bail out, he simply crashed and died. In World War II combat there were three men wounded for every one killed. But for the fighter pilots who flew alone, the figures were just reversed; there were three pilots killed for every one wounded.

Most of the close ground support missions after the invasion of France were flown by young, aggressive pilots in Thunderbolts, flying off hastily carved out airstrips in Normandy. They took terrible losses, but as General Omar Bradley said, "They may have saved our hold on Normandy, and we certainly owe the success of expanding the breakout of Normandy to their bravery."




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