William B. "Bill" Overstreet, 363rd FS
Hamilton Field; Assigned to 357th FG
born in Clifton Forge, Virginia, on April 10, 1921.
On December 7, 1941, I was working as a statistical engineer for Columbia
Engineering and attending Morris Harvey College.
I wanted to get in the Air Corps as a fighter pilot, so I did a lot of
talking just to be accepted. By
February 1942, I was a Private, waiting for an opening as an Aviation Cadet.
After several months, I was sent to Santa Anna, California, for
preflight. After several months at
preflight, I was sent to Rankin Aeronautical Academy in Tulare, California, for
primary flight training flying Stearmans.
head of the school, Tex Rankin, was a champion aerobatic pilot and demonstrated
his skill. My instructor, Carl
Aarslef, was great. He had unusual
methods of testing his students. One
thing he surprised me with – on the downwind leg of the landing pattern, at
500 feet, he would turn the Stearman upside down, cut the engine off, and say,
“OK, you land it.” Of course,
that was easy, just quarter roll it into a left turn, line up with the runway
and set it down. I guess the real
test was for your reaction. Another
maneuver was to pull it up into a normal stall, walk the nose down and through
vertical, then push the nose up inverted into an inverted stall, repeating until
the ground got close.
I was on to basic at Lemoore, California. This
was in the Vultee “Vibrator” with an adjustable prop pitch.
We could dive down to buzz someone or something and set the prop to
really roar over our target. My
next stop was advanced at Luke Field, Arizona.
The commanding officer indicated I should go to Williams Field for
multi-engine advanced training, but I was able to convince the Captain that I had
to be a fighter pilot. Anyway, the
AT-6 was really fun to fly and I got to check out in the P-40 before we got our
graduation, a group of us was assigned to Hamilton Field, California.
Then we went on to the 357th Fighter Group, 363rd
Fighter Squadron. They were moving
from Nevada to Santa Rosa, California. We
got to fly with experienced pilots and learned a lot. Flying at Santa Rosa was great.
There was enough moisture in the air to leave streamers from the wing
tips in a tight turn. Our goal was
to get a flight of four, come to the end of the runway, peel up in a tight turn
and land before the first plane’s streamers had faded.
I flew with several flight leaders, but mostly with Lloyd Hubbard.
He was good. We all thought
we could buzz pretty closely, but while we may be able to “mow the fairway”
on a golf course, only Hubbard could “mow the greens.”
also liked to take a flight of four to the Golden Gate Bridge and do loops
around it. You know we were having
fun! Compaints came in and charges
were placed. Jack Meyers, our legal
officer, told me years later that he was able to hold up action on bushels of
charges, and took most home with him after the war.
We liked to buzz farmers, sunbathers or anything.
Years later, I asked Don Graham why we got by with so much.
He replied, “If you were picking pilots for combat, who would you pick?
The fellows who flew straight and level or the ones who pushed the
envelope and tested the limits of their planes?”
were losing too many pilots and planes from the P-39 tumbling and going into
flat spins. It happened to me in
combat training on June 28, 1943. We
had been practicing aerobatics when my plane started tumbling and I couldn’t
control it. When I released the
doors, they wouldn’t come off. Pressure
had built up against them. I
finally got my knee against one door and my shoulder against the other to
overcome the pressure. When I got
out, I pulled the ripcord immediately. When
the chute opened with a jerk, I was standing by the prop among cannon shells.
I still have the ripcord, and visited Hamilton Field to thank the
parachute packer. I believe I was
the first to get out of a tumbling P-39.
day, four of us were practicing aerobatics and had reformed in formation to
return to base. We saw a P-39
diving on us, so we broke as if to start combat.
The P-39 started to snap roll right through where we had been.
Later, Ellis Rogers, a nice fellow but a big man, came over saying how
sorry he was - he had intended to join us but his P-39 had other ideas.
Rogers was so big and the P-39 so small that he had to lift his legs to
move the stick from side to side. He
must have wished for a much larger plane.
father brought my 1938 Buick to California for me. I was able to take him for a ride in our AT-6.
That was a thrill for both of us. With
the car, we were able to visit places like Russian River, Bucks Lake and other
points of interest.
the Squadron moved to Oroville, California.
We were still gaining experience flying the P-39, and learning all the
time. One mistake we made was to
have four of us meet over the field from North, South, East and West.
Then, we would split S to the field, cross below the tower, pull up and
reform. We got a radio message,
“The visiting General wants the four P-39s who buzzed the tower to land
Immediately.” We obeyed, but
chose another base to land on. We
didn’t feel welcome on our home base at that time. More paper work.
next move was to Casper, Wyoming. I
got a short leave to take my car home. I
took Dave Kramer to Missouri and “Muscles” Molday to Ohio on the way.
Then, I hitched a ride in a B-24 from Washington, D.C. to Wyoming.
I remember getting a free meal at the Hotel in Casper because one of our
pilots had killed an antelope and donated the meat to the Hotel during meat
rationing. Another time, I rode
with Don Graham to pick up pilots from local night spots and bring the back to
the Base. I didn’t know it was
possible to get that many bodies in a Lincoln coupe.
And, I will never tell where we found some of those fellows!
We were declared combat ready and shipped to Camp
Shanks, New Jersey, for shipment overseas. Although we were supposed to be confined to the Base, we got
to a night club in New York City. I
have a great picture of a bunch of us at that club.
Soon, we were loaded onto the Queen Elizabeth to cross the Atlantic.
I remember Bill “O’Bee” O’Brien
kicking his B-4 bag up the gangplank. He
had suffered a .45 wound in the arm in an accident.
He told me later that the RAF decided to ground him and ship him back to
the States. “Doc” Barker, our
Flight Surgeon, overruled them when O’Bee promised he would be able to fly.
landed in Scotland and went on to Raydon in the Ninth Air Force.
We arrived to a sea of mud and no planes.
By then, P-51s were becoming available and the Eighth Air Force wanted
them for long-range escort. So, we
were traded to the Eighth for a P-47 outfit at Leiston.
While in Raydon in all that mud, we were required to dress for dinner. War is hell.
moving to Leiston, there was more paving and less mud.
We started getting P-51s. What
a Great Day! I got to fly a p-51 for the first time on January 30, 1944.
As the inventory of planes increased, it seemed they hoped for us to get
at least 10 hours in the new plane before combat.
On February 8, Lloyd Hubbard flew with another Group to get some combat
time. Unfortunately, while strafing a German airfield, he was hit
and killed. That left Peters,
Pascoe and me to be shifted to other flight leaders.
I flew with several until I flew as “Tail End Charlie’ with Anderson.
From then on, I tried to fly with him whenever possible.
I thought then (and still do) that he was the greatest.
His record sure proves it.
named my first plane, “Southern Belle.”
However, a few weeks later when another pilot was flying it, they failed
to return. By then, early March, we
had started going to Berlin on a regular basis, so I named the rest of my
planes, “Berlin Express.”
March 6, just after the first Berlin raid, the 357th showed what our
training and teamwork could do. Our
combat training and the entire group working together produced tremendous
results. Here is a quote from our
6 March, 1944, the newly operational 357th Fighter Group provided
target and withdrawal support to heavy bombardment aircraft bombing Berlin,
which was the deepest penetration of single-engine fighters to that date.
The 33 P-51 aircraft went directly to Berlin and picked up the first
formations of B-17s just before their arrival over the city.
They found the bombers being viciously attacked by one of the largest
concentrations of twin-engine and single-engine fighters in the history of
aerial warfare. From 100 to 150
single-engine and twin-engine fighters, some firing rockets, were operating in
the immediate target area in groups of 30 to 40 as well as singly.
Each combat wing of bombers was being hit as it arrived over Berlin and
although they were sometimes outnumbered as much as 6 to 1, flights and sections
of the 357th Group went to aid each combat wing as it arrived over
the target, providing support in the air for over 30 minutes.
Upwards of 30 enemy aircraft at a time were attacked by these separate
flights and sections, and driven away from above and below the bombers.
Some of the P-51s left their
formations to engage enemy fighters below the bomber level in order to prevent
them from reforming for further attacks. Though
fighting under the most difficult conditions and subjected to constant
anti-aircraft and enemy aircraft fire, so skillfully and aggressively were their
attacks on the enemy fighters carried out that not a single aircraft of the 357th
Group was lost. In driving enemy
fighters away from the bombers, 20 Nazi fighters were destroyed, one probably
destroyed and seven others damaged. On
withdrawal, one flight of five P-51s strafed a large enemy airfield in central
Germany, damaging three twin-engine and single-engine aircraft on the ground and
killing 15-20 armed personnel before regaining altitude and returning to the
long after this, I had a freak accident. I
think it was a mission to southern France.
While over enemy territory, a burst of flak cut my oxygen line.
Since I was at about 25,000 feet, I soon passed out.
The next thing I knew, I was in a spin, engine dead since the fuel tank
it was set on was dry. Somehow, I
recovered from the spin, changed fuel setting, got the engine started, and
dodged the trees that were in front of me.
Then, I looked at my watch. Ninety
minutes were not in my memory. I
had no idea where I was, but remembered where I had been headed so I reversed
it. I was able to find the coast of
France and headed for Leiston. By
this time, I was low on fuel, so I landed at the Fourth Group base.
The officer I talked with was Captain Mead, who had lived a couple of
blocks from my home in Clifton Forge, Virginia.
To top it off, the mechanic who repaired my plane was “Hot Cha”
Tucker, a former schoolmate, also from Clifton Forge.
I still have a picture of Tucker and me with a P-47.
Many weeks later, this story got a lot of publicity – Lowell Thomas on
radio, newspapers and TIME magazine. So,
that is my claim to fame. I hope I
did a little bit that was productive.
Bill with the Winged Mustang painted on the right side of his Berlin Express
During this period, I was flying more with Andy Anderson, while Peters and Pascoe were flying more with Jim Browning. My crew chief was “Red” Dodsworth with “Whitey” McKain as his assistant. Whitey was soon promoted. Whitey and I became good friends in spite of one incident. One snowy day, the visibility was so limited that Whitey was riding my wing to the runway. At the runway, I motioned Whitey to get off, but he thought I wanted him to come to the cockpit. I was watching Andy and he gave it the gun to take off, so I did the same. Poor Whitey was blown off the wing, but was wrapped up so well he wasn’t hurt. I was very glad of that. I never knew of this until, many years later. Whitey was riding with me and told me he had promised himself never to ride with me again. He did ride with me to Oshkosh several times and we had a ball.
mission that didn’t turn out as expected was one when I had a sinus infection.
When we chased the German fighters out of position to attack the bombers,
if most of them had dived away from us, we would sometimes chase them down.
This time, I was chasing a 109 in a power dive from about 30,000 feet.
Suddenly, my eyes were swollen shut.
I was able to keep flying by feel (the pressure on the controls). I
called for help and “Daddy Rabbit” Peters said he could see me.
He got on my wing, took me back to the base and talked me through a
straight-in approach and landing. It
was days before doctors could relieve the pressure, and I could see again.
April 11, 1944, I was flying with Andy, Kayser and Simpson.
While we were escorting the bombers, a large group of 109s started to
attack the bombers head-on. Andy led us into the fight, trying to break up their
formation and keep them from getting to the bombers.
Maybe they didn’t like being shot at, but they scattered all over.
When most of them had dived away, Andy led us down after three 109s.
At about 5,000 feet, Kayser got in position and clobbered one of them.
It broke apart and Kay had to dodge the debris.
At about 3,500 feet, Simpson closed on another 109 and got two good
bursts to the nose section. He
rolled over and went straight in. I
was busy with another 109 who tried to get behind Simpson.
Andy was turning with another 109 in a tight turn.
Andy couldn’t hold a lead inside his turn, so he reversed his turn and
came in almost head-on. As the 109
broke apart, the pilot bailed out. That
took care of the 109s, but Andy spotted a HE111K flying close to the ground.
Andy hit him good but directed all of us to make a pass.
We all got hits and Andy came back, hitting it from nose to tail.
The HE111K tried to crash-land, hit a pole tearing off the left wing,
then started burning. As it slid
along, the crew jumped out and I believe they were all track stars.
They were in a hurry. Andy
insisted on sharing the claim, although he easily could have claimed it.
He would rather give us some experience and training.
During May, 1944, Colonel Graham ordered side arms to be carried at all times. There was an alert about German paratroopers. On May 12, I destroyed a JU52 on the ground. Andy got another 109 in the air. With Pierce and Michaely, we also destroyed a locomotive, rail cars and some barges.
William Overstreet points to the name of his P-51C-3-NT, 42-103309, in June
D-Day through October, 31, 1944
June 6 was the invasion. We took off about 2 a.m. in horrible weather. We had to climb about 20,000 feet to get out of the overcast. It was beautiful when I got on top. The moon was bright, and as planes would break out of the overcast, they were in different attitudes from the long climb on instruments. We never did find our assigned flights, just formed up in flights of four. We went to France to make sure that no German fighters could bother the invasion, and to prevent reinforcements from being brought up. After six hours, we came back to the base for fuel. The Group flew eight missions on the day of the invasion. Smaller flights had different objectives.
next day, Andy, Simpson, Skara and I strafed trains, trucks and military
vehicles. On June 10, the Group
claimed trains, rail shacks, boxcars, trucks, lorries and barges.
June 29 was a good day. I
got behind a FW190 and when I started getting hits, he flipped over and bailed
out. I used only 40 rounds the
whole day. General Kepner issued
another commendation for the 357th and the 361st Groups.
We destroyed 48 enemy aircraft without losing a single bomber.
July 29, I chased a 109 to the deck and had a wing in the grass when he blew up.
He must have been trying to get to his base because we were close to a
German airfield. My wingman, Harold Hand, and I made a pass and destroyed
another 109 and damaged a DO217. I
went back and got another 109 but I found that I was alone. I asked Hand where he was and he replied, “I am giving you
top cover.” Smart fellow.
August 6, we started on our shuttle mission.
I was leading a flight with Cleland, Pearson and Fennel.
Jack Cleland was a New Zealand RAF pilot who had flown two tours in
Spitfires and came to us to get some experience in longer missions.
On his two tours in Spitfires, no mission had exceeded two hours.
What a mixed flight – Cleland and Pearson. Pearson was an American who had gone to Canada, joined the
RCAF, then transferred to the USAAF and the 357th.
About 7 hours later and after several dogfights on the way, we landed on
a grass field in Russia.
357th had sent some mechanics as gunners on the bombers so they could
service our planes. The trouble
was, the bombers landed at a different field and the mechanics never got to our
P-51s. The Russian crews put the
wrong octane fuel in some of our P-51s and caused a lot of trouble.
I was assigned a cot in a tent that came complete with a blacksnake in
the cot. When I saw a P-39 on the
field, I asked if I could fly it since I had a lot of time in P-39s.
Not a chance. They
wouldn’t let me get within a hundred feet of it.
had one escort mission out of Russia. This
gave enough time in Russia to find some beet vodka. We thought it was better
than potato vodka and decided we should take some along with us.
I offered to leave my ammunition behind to make space for the vodka.
That was fine until we ran into some 109s on our way to Italy.
Naturally, we went after them, but they ran away.
However, we got close to the last one and he rolled over and bailed out.
Since I was the closest plane, I could have claimed another 109, but I
did not want to claim the only enemy plane destroyed with vodka!
Now all I had to worry about was to make a smooth landing in Italy to
safeguard my precious cargo. Our
mission from Italy was a real thrill. We
escorted C-47s to Yugoslavia to pick up downed airmen collected by Tito and
brought to a small airfield. The
C-47s took turns landing and picking up a load of men, then taking off.
The amazing sight was as the fellows jumped into the C-47, they were
throwing out their shoes, clothing, etc., for their rescuers.
I guess everything was in short supply, and our airmen wanted to help
those who had helped them. All that
was left of the shuttle mission was the return to England.
That took about 8 hours. How
do you think Cleland, whose earlier missions had not exceeded two hours, felt by
remember many exciting missions. On
one, a 109 blew up when I was too close. Pieces
of the 109 came into my cockpit and landed in my lap.
I still have that piece of extremely light and strong metal.
On another, I saw a 109, in a shallow dive after the pilot bailed out,
crashing into the side of a factory. Then
the engine itself came out the other side of the building, sliding down the
street. On still another mission, a
cannon shell came through the side of my canopy.
It took the canopy, oxygen mask helmet, gave me a haircut, and a bad burn
on my neck. Everyone knows you
can’t hit a 90-degree shot very often, so I still wonder who the German was
shooting at. At least I knew why my
canopy was missing. Kit Carson lost
his canopy on a mission and was angry with his crew chief until the crew chief
took him over to the plane and showed him the bullet holes that caused the
canopy to leave. Kit didn’t know
until then that he had been hit.
September 3, 1944, Ed Hiro and I went to a base where they had a B-24 stripped
down but loaded with explosives. A
pilot had to take off, then bail out when the radio control from the “Mother
Ship” took over. By radio
control, the bomber was flown in the sub pens and blown up.
The sub pens were under heavy rock formations that had resisted bombing
from the air. But when the
explosion was inside, under the rock cover, significant damage was achieved.
Our job was to make sure no enemy planes bothered the mission.
My mission log for this day is marked “SECRET.”
is when the OSS asked me to fly for them. They
were already operating almost a regular airline to the Free French behind enemy
lines. We picked up airmen downed
behind enemy lines, collected intelligence, and provided supplies to the Free
French. Soon I was grounded again,
and ordered back to the States. What
a Halloween present for my family!
I have only described some of my experiences, and have many more to tell.
Merle Olmsted, Bud Anderson, Margreth Olmsted and Bill, at the last 357th FG Association Reunion, Sept 2001
Read Scott Richardson's story from Bill Overstreet.
View the Profile of Bill's Berlin Express