D-Day and the Yoxford Boys

By Merle Olmsted

By the first of June 1944, everyone in the military forces of half a dozen countries in the United Kingdom knew the Allied invasion of the continent was coming, and very soon. The French costal population knew it, and so did the Germans. Fortunately, Allied deception tactics had been successful, and the Germans did not know the vital where and when.

At 8th Air Force station F-373, Leiston Airfield, on the far eastern bulge of England, the 357th Fighter Group, had its first hint late in May when Colonel Donald Graham, the Group Commander, ordered all personnel to go armed at all times. Carbine, Thompson submachine guns, and .45 caliber service pistols appeared out of foot lockers and dusty corners. Mostly untrained in their use, it was fortunate that no German paratroops appeared.

The 357th, with its three squadrons, the 362nd, 363rd and 364th, had arrived in the U.K. late in 1943, and by January 1944, was in place at its permanent wartime base, near the town of Leiston, in Suffolk County. Assigned to the Eighth Air Force, to provide long range escort for the 8th’s B-17s and B-24s, it was the first group in the 8th to fly the magnificent Mustang. The German propaganda radio immediately christened the Group THE YOXFORD BOYS, after a nearby village of the same name. The Group has proudly borne that name ever since.

By the end of May, after three and a half months of operation, the Group has flown 69 mission, shot down over 220 enemy aircraft, and has lost 58 pilots, dead, POWs, and a few evaders.

As June began, it was business as usual, using the P-51s extraordinary range to escort the bombers on their business deep in Germany. Other than the appearance of individual weapons, life went on as before at Station F-373.

On the first day of June, a battle damaged B-24 of the 489th Bomb Group crash landed at Leiston with wounded aboard. Since Leiston was the closest base to the coast of the North Sea, the arrival of cripples was not unusual.

Missions were flown on the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th, all normal escort jobs, but the one on the 3rd was somewhat unusual – twelve Mustangs escorted a single B-17 of the 100th Bomb Group to Brussels and return. Only the bomber crew knew what their mission was. No enemy aircraft were seen on any of these early June forays.

Late in the morning of the 5th of June, gate guards were ordered to let no one in, or out, of the base, and at 1300 hours, the loudspeakers, located throughout the base area, announced that no one would be allowed to enter or leave, including the British civilian workers on the base.

Corporal Melvin Applebaum, an accomplished writer and a clerk in the Intelligence Section of the 362nd Squadron, wrote an eight page narrative of the scene and activities at Leiston Air Field, during the D-Day period. We will quote at length from this priceless document:

That night, the fifth of June, starting at 8 o’oclock, we painted our Mustangs with wide white stripes.

You don’t paint wide white stripes on airplanes unless you want to make sure that friends, ground troops, or air personnel, cannot mistake your identification. It’s a thing you would logically do in case an invasion, for example, was imminent.

Few of us believed that D-Day had come. Many of us were not willing to bet our so easily spent English pounds that it had not, for false alarms are an accepted part of Army tradition. We’ve been on dry runs before. In our hearts we prayed that the waiting was over at last, that this was the beginning of the real thing, that the curtain was really rising. We prayed, but we didn’t believe it, even yet.

In the Group briefing room at 4 o’clock the next morning were all the pilots, all the “Paddle feet” (ground officers). The blackout curtains were still tightly drawn and the air was thick with cigarette smoke, which gave a dull glow to the lights above. Small bunches of men had formed, discussion was animated, this must be the pay-off. Forgotten now were the personal differences, the rank, the fact that this fellow was an ace, and that one a virgin, that this one hailed from Georgia and that one from Brooklyn, that this one belonged to the 362nd and this to the 364th; forgotten was the fact that this one was PHI BETTA KAPPA, and that one an ex-coal miner, that this one had flown with the RAF, and that one had been an instructor pilot on AT-6s for two solid years back in the states …..

Here we were, on June 6th, seeing thousands of years of history being made, helping to make it, we knew that. Behind the buzz of conversation a myriad of remembrances were flashing through the mind of every man. But these things remained in the back of the mind, unexpressed, while the talk of planes, ships, tanks, guns flowed on, while the smoke grew thicker, the sweep hand of the clock on the wall steadily orbiting around and around, the chairs scrapping, and some one sneezing violently to be greeted by a humorous GESUNDHEIT

Then like a shot, some one bawled ATTENSHUN, and everyone arose hurriedly, standing in awkward rigidity, as the Group C.O. walked briskly towards the front. This time it was more that perfunctory formality; it was an expression of unity of purpose, the way five basketball players with crew cut hair will clasp hands in a huddle just before the game gets under way. Young and slim, his face seemed much older this morning, drawn and intense. “Be seated, gentleman,” he said and the stillness became oppressive, quickening the pulses. Nervously fingering a sealed brown envelope, Colonel Graham peered around into the expectant faces, sensing the drama of the moment. Then in a slow, subdued voice, he said “Under the command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces, will begin landing Allied armies this morning on the Northern coast of France.”

It was D-Day!

In his narrative, Applebaum gives the time of briefing as 4 a.m. However, his memory is a bit off here, as briefing was at 2300 hours (11 p.m.) on the 5th of June, and the first of eight missions on D-Day took off at 0215 on the morning of the 6th.

During normal times, the mission leader prepared a post mission report, but apparently this was not done during the hectic early days of the invasion. The eight missions on the 6th are summarized in a few words, probably by someone in Operations or Intelligence.

For mission#1, it states: “FO0371 (This is the field order). Up 0215, down 1015. Col. Graham lead, 363rd and 364th squadrons, sweep west of (the island) of Guernsey. No enemy aircraft seen. Captain Ruder crash landed 5 mi SE of Cherbourg. Lt. Pagels last seen at take-off. Solid overcast to 12,000.”

Some 50 years later, two men who were on that historic operation still have vivid memories of it. William “OBee” O’Brien, then a captain and a flight leader in the 363rd squadron, has a little different memory than the brief official report:

We flew a mission on the 5th of June in the late afternoon, it was dusk when we got back on the ground. I remember well, as the white “invasion” stripes were being painted on the planes that I could see when I was landing. At the pilots shack I was told that briefing was at 11:00, which sounded like a good deal as I said “we get to sleep late.” Not so, I was told, briefing was at 11:00 tonight. Instead of a good deal, we were going to invade the continent.

The briefing placed takeoff at 0210, June the 6th, assembly over the field, then proceed to the area of the Bay of Biscay to sweep for opposition.

The fine idea required a night takeoff and night formation work. The weather was poor, I believe it was about solid overcast to about 7,000. The result was no one got into formation at low altitude circling the field. We got on top of the clouds and started looking for our respective flights and squadrons. I couldn’t find anyone who was supposed to be with me, and about that time a P-51 came strolling by with his navigation lights on so I tacked onto him. The two of us were joined by another lonesome P-51 so the guy in the lighted plane set out on course. As the 363rd was lead squadron I felt comfortable whoever I was flying with. Well, away we go – finally the sun comes up and we are stooging around somewhere.  I slide in close to observe the guy in the lead who was trying to orientate a map with what ever coast we could see. I felt sorry for him – Magellan couldn’t have helped us. After horsing around like this for six hours and 50 minutes we are back at Leiston. All planes taxi to the 363rd dispersal area, and out steps Graham, the leader, and his wingmen, Anderson and O’Brien. Oh!, how wonderful, a group leader without a squadron, who is also a squadron leader without a squadron, and two flight leaders without flights.

The Anderson referred to by OBee, was Captain C.E. Anderson, also a flight leader in the 363rdd. He had forgotten to open his coolant shutters while taxiing to takeoff position, and found at that point, that his coolant temperature was out of limits, and the coolant relief valve popped open spraying a mist of coolant on the windshield. Hurriedly opening the shutter brought the temperature down again, and he decided to stay with the mission, hoping he had not lost a significant amount of coolant (he hadn’t).

In his superb book TO FLY AND FIGHT, Colonel Anderson (USAF Ret), describes his memories of that day:

In the dark, we got the three squadrons together. I locked my flight onto that of Don Graham, who was leading the Group, and we headed out over the channel. The only resistance we met over France was a little flak. Although the glowing tracers looked closer at night, and much scarier. When we reached our sector, Graham ordered lights out, and there was only the blue flame from Graham’s exhaust to home on to. I’d lose him from time to time and in spite of radio silence I’d call “Red lead, flash your lights,” in order to find him. We circled for hours that way.

Came the dawn, and there’s Colonel Graham, his wingman, me and “OBee” O’Brien, four planes. There wasn’t another plane in the sky. I’d locked onto Graham and O’Brien, leading another flight, had locked onto me. Either we were in the right place, or the other 44 planes were.

Some guys got so lost they wound up over Spain. Jim Browning said later that when the sun came up that morning, he looked down and saw he was over a coastline that ran east and west. He decided it had to be Spain, turned north and flew for more that two hours to get back to England.

The four of us flew circles until it was time to go home in midmorning. Flying home, we had a quick glimpse of history through the breaks in the cloud cover; the vast armada of ships, the beaches besieged. Six hours and 50 minutes later after takeoff, we landed at Leiston with plenty of fuel in reserve.

This illustrates one attribute that made the Mustang stand out over all of its competitors, its amazing range.

As this is written early in 2004, there are plans for Col Anderson to fly a P-51, in his WW2 Old Crow markings, over the beaches of Normandy on the 6th of June, just as he did 60 years ago. He is one of the very few WW2 pilots still flying the same type aircraft he did 60 years ago.

Even though there had been no contact with enemy aircraft, it will be noted from the mission report, that two pilots failed to return. Lt Roger Pagels was the last aircraft to take off on that first mission, and he immediately became lost in the overcast scud. He flew deep into southern France where he finally bailed out. French historians have determined that he was picked up by the French underground where he stayed until liberated by Allied armies in August. He never returned to the unit.  

The other first mission loss was Captain LeRoy Ruder, a flight leader in the 364th Squadron and an ace with 5.5 victories. When he arrived at the hardstand where his P-51 Linda Lu was parked, he found he had forgotten his knife (vital in case of accidental inflation of his dinghy in the cockpit). His armorer, Sgt Willard Bierly, loaned Ruder his knife. Bierly never got the knife back.

Like many others, Ruder ended up later in the morning over the coast of France, where at about 0900 hours, he called his element leader, Lt. Mark Stepelton, and said his engine had quit. Stepelton told him to bail out, but he said he could see land and was going to crash-land. This was a few miles SE of Cherbourg and near the invasion beaches. Stepelton let down thru the clouds, but could not find Ruder, nor contact him on the radio. His fate remains unknown, but since he was close to an area of violent ground combat, it is likely he was killed on the ground.

So ended the first mission of D-Day. Although the Group had carried out its assigned mission, the contribution to the invasion was minimal, and two pilots had been lost.

The second mission of the day was another sweep, to be carried out by the 362nd Squadron. Corporal Applebaum wrote:

Major Broadhead, our commanding officer, led 16 planes out onto runway 36. At exactly 0512 hours, the P-51s were airborne. We were to patrol area 22 in France. Higher Headquarters had carefully planned the whole thing, assigning certain regions and duties to certain groups, well aware that scrupulous organization was more than ever important, for an unprecedented number of Allied planes would be operating over a limited area. We patrolled the area, encountered neither Allied planes nor the vaunted Luftwaffe, and came back home. Just short of seven hours in the air. The pilots rubbed their butts and shouted for coffee.

Fifty-one minutes later, we had fourteen planes, loaded with 250 lb GP bombs, streaking back toward the same area. We bombed a highway bridge over the Mayenne River west of Chateau Gontier, or tried to bomb it, for results were poor, but we tore up some rail tracks.

There were a total of eight missions on D-Day proper, split evenly between the three squadrons. Four of these were to bomb road and rail targets. One mission turned back due to severe icing conditions.

There was one further loss on 6 June. Captain DeVries led a section of the 363rd Squadron to bomb reported tanks. Again the foul weather interfered and Lt. Irving A. Smith was last seen by his wingman as they entered the overcast. Nothing further is know of his fate.

Corporal Applebaum continues his narrative:

The pilot’s room was a mess. Iron cots were all over the place, covered with gray lumps, which were the pilots buried under English blankets for some much needed rest. The new radio was tuned in constantly for the latest reports of Allied progress. PFC Ayes, in supreme command of the snack bar, forgot the hours for serving, and set a record for eggs and hotcakes prepared. The Operations board had new schedules prepared before the preceding mission had been completed. Intelligence officers, Capt. Pickerall and Lt. Brown, were barley through calling in their reports, and recording interrogations before another four flights were wearily straggling into the S-2 office.

What could we say about the first day of invasion flying? Most of it had been grueling. A test of endurance rather than combat skill. It had been urgent. Everyone knew that the ensuing days would determine whether or not all the months of steady hammering had been in vain, whether or not some buddy in a parachute battalion, or a brother in some tank, would live or die as a result of the air protection.

D-Day did not end with the final mission of 6 June. The primary mission of the 8th Air Force was strategic bombardment of Germany, but it was now totally committed in support of he invasion, and this did not end until the 20th of June.

During the period 6 thru 15 June, the 357th dropped 469 bombs, mostly on road and rail targets. Since bomb dropping was not part of their normal repertoire, many of these probably missed their intended targets.

The next day, the 7th, the number of missions was reduced to four. Briefing for the first, to be led by Captain Cal Williams, was at 0300 (3 a.m.) and the last operation of he day, landed at 2150 hours (9:50 p.m.). On the mid-day affair, which was an area sweep, as directed by OILSKIN (the figher controller), Lt John N. Denseha, was hit by light flak, and died in the ensuing crash.

Corporal Applebaum was up early in the control tower when the first mission departed:

…if you happened to be in the control tower at 0350 hours on June 7th, you”d have felt a curious thrill running up and down your spine. Sixteen of our (362nd sqdn) planes, loaded with bombs, were taking off in the darkness. You couldn’t see the planes, only the navigation lights, as they streaked down the runway, bobbing a little, and then slowly getting airborne as you held your breath. When they wee airborne you’d have sighed with relief, and listened to the R/T conversations, trying to recognize the individual voices – “blink those lights, Rough, (James Roughgarden)…” that must be Captain Williams calling. And then someone saying “hell, I can’t see a damned thing.” Exasperatedly sure you couldn’t mistake Carson (Leonard).

A slow drawl, then …” that ain’t me below you, Mitch (Lloyd Mitchell), that’s the field, ‘cause I’m above you all” Good ole tex (Hill). Somebody laughed.

The squadron was down by 1010 hours, weather has been P. Poor. An airdrome has been missed, a highway bridge damaged, a locomotive and twelve box cars had been straffed and two other locomotives destroyed.

One P-51B had been wrecked during the day, when Flight Officer Frank Koka ran off the runway on landing, with no injury to himself.

Around mid night of the 7/8th, the Luftwaffe retaliated – in a feeble way. Midnight chow was being served in the big consolidated mess hall when the meal was interrupted by a burst of cannon fire striking the roof. Although many people heard and saw the intruder as he bored in on shaft of light from an open door at the mess hall, there was little consensus of opinion as to the type of aircraft, Ju 88, Me 410, Fw 190 or Me 109.

There was a small base defense force on duty, and at least one truck mounted .50 caliber machine gun returned fire, getting a few hits, as a gas cap and other small bits were later found.  

Other that a rude awakening for those in bed, a few holes in the roof, and the chaos of overturned tables and scrambled powered eggs, there were no casualties, (this writer was asleep until the terrifying burst of 20 mm cannon fire shattered the midnight calm.) The RAF plotted nine enemy aircraft over Britain that night, which shot down four B-24s while in the landing pattern. RAF Mosquito night fighters shot down three of he intruders.

At Leiston the affair caused hardly a ripple in the Group records, with the dawn of the 8th, it was back to the business of supporting the ground troops.

There were again, four bombing and strafing missions, and the first post D-Day contact with enemy aircraft, when John Storch’s force of 364th P-51s were bounced by some 40 enemy fighters, but with no results either way. Lt. Ollie Harris was, however, shot down by an Fw 190, bailed into the sea and was eventually rescued by the Air Rescue service.

From Corporal Applebaum’s narrative:

During the night (of 8/9) the weather became even more dismal. We arose on he 9th, cursing the German good luck and our bad luck, knowing that there would be no air support from us. But something helped compensate for the weather. We learned that Lt. Harris was alive, he had been picked up by Air Sea Rescue. The sandy haired kid from Kentucky looked pretty pale when Major Gates brought him back from the RAF hospital in the AT-6.

The only attempt at a mission on the 9th came at about 1700 hours, when, on verbal orders of the Commanding General, 66th Fighter Wing, P-51s were dispatched, which joined with five Lockheed F-5s from the 7th Photo Reconn. Grp., headed fro the Brussels area. However, the whole group was turned back by the impossible weather and were back home by 1800 hours.

For the week following 9 June, the bombing and strafing continued against road and rail targets, but we will record only a few events of interest.

On the 10th, Lt John Childs was shot down when he flew across in front of another P-51 which was strafing a truck. Although Childs called his flight leader and asked for a course to the beaches, he was never seen again.

Two days later, the Group was assigned to escort B-26s bombing a bridge. The Mission leader reported “Good bombing pattern, but probably no hits on the bridge.”

During this period the weather continued to be a major obstacle, but the Group flew its assigned jobs regardless.

The Luftwaffe finally put in an appearance on the 14th. In a confused melee, two Fw190s were shot down, one by Lt. James Colburn for his only victory, who was then shot down and killed by another Fw190. The Leaders report says: “16 Fw 190s escaped into a cloud on account our section bounced by white nosed P-51s.”

An interesting event on the 15th was the first passage over the base, of a German V-1 “ buzz bomb.” These would be frequent visitors later in the fall, but only one crashed on base, with no damage or casualties.

From the 15th on, there was a gradual return to the normal mission of bomber escort, but interspersed with bombing and strafing attacks the rest of June.

We will end our coverage of the D-Day period with an especially effective operation on the 16th. Major Tommy Hayes, C.O. of the 364th, was leading all three squadrons. Hayes had flown P-39s and P-40s in the Pacific in the early days of the war, and briefed his pilots on a tactic they had used in the far east, the use of drop tanks as fire bombs. The plan was to try it on this date if an opportunity arose. It was a combined operation with the 352nd Fighter Group, but at the rendezvous point, there was no sign of the 352nd, so Hayes checked out all of the marshalling yards in the area, picking one at St. Pierre, that appeared to be flak free.

The tactic was a complete success, with each flight dropping its partially filled tanks on trains in the yard, and the following flight igniting the gasoline with gunfire. Two yards in the vicinity were left with huge fires and explosions that could be seen for 20 miles. There were no losses.

We will end the D-Day period with Corporal Appelbaum’s comments:

During the month of June, Tom Dewey became Republican candidate for president, The G.I. Bill of Rights became law, Babe Didrickson won a golf championship, the St. Louis Browns stayed on top, the Russians opened their summer offensive, and everywhere you looked were pictures of Betty Grable’s baby.

Over here, June was a big month too.

By the 25th of April 1945, when 8th Air Force ordered it’s Groups to cease combat operation, the 357th had built up an outstanding record. It’s score of 595 enemy aircraft shot down in aerial combat, was second only to that of the great Hub Zemke’s 56th Group, which had been in combat ten month’s longer. There were 43 aces on it’s rosters, more that any group, and on the 14th of January, 1945, 357th pilots shot down 55.5 enemy aircraft in a huge air battle in the Berlin area. No other group ever came close to that figure.

THE YOXFORD BOYS had also destroyed 18.5 of the formidable Me 262 jets, again more than any other group.

Ninety-two men of the 357th Fighter Group lost their lives in the line of duty.

By Merle Olmsted

Journal: American Aviation Historical Society, Summer 2004