To Bail Out or Burn Up?

Posted on December 16, 2021

by Tom Clavin

Read on for an excerpt that discusses Joe Moser’s fight for survival in Tom Clavin’s Lightning Down!

P-38 rear view.
This mage is in the public domain via Wikicommons

On his forty-fourth mission, Joe Moser would be the leader of F flight with the call sign “Censor Red Leader.” The previous afternoon, when he had looked at the list of pilots who would be taking off posted on one wall of the briefing tent at their new base, his name was just one name. Nothing special. Joe and the others were awoken at 6:30 that morning, August 13, by a sergeant shouting from tent to tent. Yawning and stretching, the pilots tugged on T-shirts and wool pants and flight suits and ankle-length leather shoes.

When they left their tents, there was no surprise about the day being hot and hazy. Sweat began to leak under their outfits. Well, what else would one expect in western France in mid-August? The pilots shuffled over to the outdoor tables, where they were served powdered eggs and what was called coffee but was a poor substitute for the real thing. At 8:30, the flyers were inside a stifling tent for a briefing given by Major Burl Glass, still the commanding officer of the 429th Squadron. He would not be leading that day’s mission; Colonel Wasem had given himself that assignment. Selected from the 429th and the two other squadrons were thirteen P-38 pilots who would soon be lifting off. No one remarked that this was not the luckiest of numbers.

It was then that Joe learned he would be one of the flight leaders. F flight would consist of four planes. Joe glanced at his wingman, chosen by Major Glass. This pilot had been in the 429th only a couple of months. Joe had flown on a few missions with him but did not know him. For some reason, “I was a little uneasy. It wasn’t unusual for me to not know him well, as I am a pretty quiet guy and tend to keep to myself a fair bit.” Joe said nothing to Major Glass. If a pilot protested his assignment every time he felt uneasy, the skies over France would be a lot emptier.

The major told the men gathered in the briefing tent that they would be on an armed reconnaissance mission. That plus the possibility of bombing and strafing targets on the ground meant the Lightnings would be flying at only four thousand feet. This would make for some hot and uncomfortable pilots, because unlike when serving as Flying Fortress escorts at thirty thousand feet, that was not high enough for cold air. Add to that what the typical P-38 pilot wore: a flight suit, anti-gravity suit, leather helmet and goggles, an oxygen mask, and a parachute strapped to his back—all on top of the T-shirt and wool pants. It was like being wrapped in a thick blanket. Joe likely recalled the comfort of cool summer mornings back in northwest Washington State.

Their destination was Rambouillet, a town ten miles from Versailles. Previous reconnaissance had ascertained that reinforcements being rushed to the fragile German front lines were coming from that direction. The pilots would observe the number of tanks, supply trucks, and any other vehicles heading west—and if the circumstances allowed, dive down and take some of them out. “If it moves, smash it,” Major Glass instructed. Then, referring to the tanks that had been destroyed and damaged on the mission two days earlier, he added, “Let’s find some more Tigers.”

The hybrid squadron led by Colonel Wasem took off at 10 A.M. Joe reflected, “I never really got over the thrill of putting my hand over the twin throttles of the fighter and feeling the vibration and acceleration as the power of almost 3000 horses pulled me over the rough runway and into the air.” Once in formation, the Lightnings flew east.

For Joe, leading his four-plane group generated even more sweat. If the enemy appeared and he had to make decisions, the wrong ones could cost lives. He repeatedly scanned the skies, though he knew, “Invariably, it is the enemy you don’t see that will get you.” For the most part, that was what had cost a quarter of the 429th Squadron’s pilots to be killed or reported missing since the unit had begun operations out of Warmwell that spring. Those pilots and planes had been replaced, but the toll felt like a raw wound.

Unlike in the spring, when the invasion of France was still a vague hope, Joe and the other pilots now knew that the bloody Normandy landing had been successful and that the breakout a couple of weeks earlier was gaining momentum. They all knew the name of General Courtney Hodges, the Georgia native who had enlisted as a private in 1906 and risen through the ranks to now, when he had just assumed command of the First Army from General Bradley, who was being kicked upstairs. It was the First Army that was spearheading the drive toward Paris, and General Quesada was making sure his Ninth Air Force provided every ounce of support it could.

Missions like the ones the 474th was flying this hot August morning were even more important now, with the advancing ground troops needing to know what lay ahead. Even better was if the fighters could put a hurt on the enemy before the troops and tanks got there. Paris was getting closer faster.

The anxiety Joe felt being a flight leader was not helped by the thick haze. He found it hard to see what else was in the air, let alone on the ground. Another reason to be extra vigilant was that the haze raised the risk of the P-38s drifting farther away from one another. They all knew a squadron in a tight formation was the least vulnerable to attack. Radio contact was simply not sufficient; the pilots had to be in visual contact with each other.

Though one day seemed to blend into the next and the routine of flying missions from the Isigny-sur-Mer base was well established, on that morning Joe was aware it was a Sunday. Back in Ferndale, he and his mother and brother and sisters would be getting ready to attend Mass at St. Joseph’s. Who knows, if the war had not interfered, he might be escorting a girlfriend or meeting her at the church. Heck, he might even be married. It had been two years since Joe had enlisted in the army, and a lot could have transpired during that time.

From what Joe could see as the sortie cruised at four thousand feet, it appeared to be a peaceful Sunday morning in the French countryside. He saw fields, most of them green, laid out in uneven patches: “They meandered through the countryside, separated by the impassable hedgerows in a way that seemed at once haphazard and still carefully ordered.” Joe was not there to sightsee, though, so he kept a sharp eye out for possible targets.

One materialized. He saw a rail line … but as he followed it, he could find no trains on it. Then through the haze he thought he glimpsed a gathering of trucks. Joe banked slightly left, and the three other planes in his flight followed their leader. Trucks, all right, a cluster of maybe a half dozen of them. Had to be German because no Allied vehicles could possibly have traveled this far east, a few miles from Dreux. The convoy appeared to have halted on the road leading to the village of Houdan. Whatever the holdup was, the Germans were taking a risk, perhaps counting on its being a quiet Sunday morning and the possibility that the American flyers were giving themselves a break.

They were about to be rudely proved wrong. Joe radioed the three other pilots, “Truck convoy on the road. I’m going in.” His wingman would be right behind him, and if all went well, the other two P-38s would follow. Perhaps with one pass each and unloading the five-hundred-pound bombs the Lightnings carried, the convoy would vanish from the otherwise bucolic landscape.

Joe dove and his plane picked up speed. He had the center of the convoy in his windscreen: “My fingers were on the bomb release, and I hoped to see the satisfying explosion as German equipment, ammunition and fuel erupted.”

What he saw a few moments later was flak, and plenty of it. Suddenly, Joe understood that he had flown into a trap. His Lightning was surrounded by angry puffs of smoke. There must have been a German battery hidden nearby with the trucks as bait, just waiting for overeager pilots—like him. Since he was almost down to two hundred feet, Joe figured he’d release his bombs anyway and pull up to get out of harm’s way. And then his P-38 was hit. Joe felt it shudder and guessed a 37-mm shell had gotten it. The proof was when he saw his left engine on fire.

He managed to climb to the northwest and away from the flak. There was no sign of the other three planes, and Joe prayed they had seen the flak in time to avoid being hit. Some flight leader he was, falling for such a simple ruse. In case they were still in range, Joe radioed, “Censor Red Leader. My left engine on fire. Returning to base.” There was no response.

It was a lot easier to radio that he was returning to base than to actually do it with an engine on fire. He shut it down, hoping the air flow from the Lightning would blow the fire out like a birthday candle. He recalled from those countless hours of training what he had to do: “I feathered the propeller, stopping it from freewheeling to reduce drag. Full throttle on the right engine to get as much altitude as possible and head west.” And he abruptly realized he still carried the five-hundred-pound bombs under his wings, with a left engine on fire.

Joe saw an empty stretch of road below and no sign of French vehicles or people walking or bicycling. Following it directly above, he let the bombs go. He turned the P-38 west. He sure hoped no German fighters happened to spot him. So far, so good. Well, maybe not so good: “I looked at the engine, praying that the fire would die down or go out. It was growing.”

Nothing else to do but keep climbing, scratching and clawing for as much altitude as possible to improve his chances of at least getting to the American front lines. He envisioned the Lightning landing in a field “with American soldiers running up to me, pounding me on the back and personally thanking me for helping take out those tanks and ammunition trains.”

But the fire kept growing. Joe kept climbing. He was at 2,500 feet. He felt good about his chances. He’d always had a fair amount of confidence about his abilities and that of his P-38. “Even now, with my plane on fire, I was sure I would get home and see my family again.” However, he could feel the heat from the fire getting stronger with each passing mile.

Joe could barely see the engine anymore; it was covered in flames. Now the flames were on the wing too, inching toward the cockpit. He was at three thousand feet. He thought if he could get five more minutes, he might be close enough to the American lines … maybe. But then that no longer mattered. The flames were licking the cockpit. Very soon, maybe only a couple of minutes, he would be on fire.

He was out of time. Joe pulled the release, and the plexiglass canopy blew away. The sudden rush of air was burning hot. Joe knew if he did not bail out, he would be roasted alive. But bailing out was not an appealing option—P-38 pilots knew how tough that was and how many Lightnings had crashed with their pilots caught on the tail. But doing so was the only choice left to him.

With his speed having slowed during the climb, Joe figured the best option was to flip the plane over and simply fall out of it. He unstrapped his harness. He may have resented the parachute on his back before when the heat of the morning was uncomfortable, but Joe was very grateful for it now. He yanked the buckles loose from the straps holding him to his seat. The flames had advanced to the cusp of the cockpit. The altimeter told him he was at 3,200 feet. If he could just get a few more miles west …

Nope, was not going to happen. There was a sudden explosion as the glass window on the left side of the cockpit burst apart. Burning shards of metal and glass flew around. One of them, as if with cruel intent, managed to get under his flight suit to burn his back. Flames followed through the opening, searing his left arm.

Time had run out. Joe’s only choice was to bail out or burn up. He flipped the P-38 over, said a quick prayer, and dropped out … or tried to. He discovered that he was stuck, because the toe of his leather boot was caught in the metal plate the canopy had been hinged to. He was halfway out of the P-38 but connected to it by his boot, upside-down and facing forward.

If he could not get his boot free, when the P-38 plunged to earth, he would go with it.

Copyright © 2021 by Tom Clavin.

Photo by Gordon M. Grant

TOM CLAVIN is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and has worked as a newspaper editor, magazine writer, TV and radio commentator, and a reporter for The New York Times. He has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, and National Newspaper Association. His books include the bestselling Frontier Lawmen trilogy—Wild Bill, Dodge City, and Tombstone—and Blood and Treasure with Bob Drury. He lives in Sag Harbor, NY.

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