David C. Wilhelm ’38

Wilhelm '38

David C. Wilhelm '38

(1919–    )
Air Force, Captain

From Recollections of World War II, compiled by J. Read Murphy ’38; pages 162–165

At graduation from Yale, having taken the Army ROTC courses, I was commissioned a 2d Lieutenant in the field artillery, along with Paul Pattinson. We spent several months at Fort Sill, Okla., then transferred to Flight Training, but as lieutenants, most every one else being cadets. (Paul went to B-24 bombers and later I flew to seven airfields in Italy and finally found him.) I trained in AT-6s and P-40s, then flew Spitfires in Africa and Italy.

Our Super Marine Spitfire was built by the British to intercept German bombers as they tried to bomb the British into submission. The Spit was short range, could climb like a bird @ 3,000 feet per minute to intercept the Krauts, and could outturn the ME-109 and Folke-Wolfe 190 (which were the fighter escorts of the German bombers). The Spit was built to defend London and Great Britain from Hitler’s attempt to burn England into submission, achieve air supremacy, and thus be able to invade the British islands. As Winston Churchill said, “Never have so many owed so much to so few”—the pilots of the RAF who beat off the Germans in the so-called “Battle of Britain.” The British air victory was possibly the turning point of World War II, for Hitler cancelled the Nazi invasion and as a result, with the Allied build-up in strength, it never came about.

Back to us. We were flying the original Spit V and then upgraded to the Spit IX and Spit VIII. We flew hour and half-hour missions out of fields in southern Italy. German opposition was spasmodic. The Russian front was occupying the Luftwaffe, so opposition was not daily on our missions. I might recall my first combat mission. I was flying wingman with a trumpet player from the Big Apple. He was not an intrepid fighter, for as we flew up towards Rome and were “jumped” by four ME-109s, he peeled off and went home, leaving this terrified neophyte to contend with the Krauts. I jerked and yanked my plane around enough so they did not get me. I was in a wild survival panic as they came back a second time—again failing to hit this poor, scared, fluttering bird. I stumbled home unscathed, but already wiser. My elements leader was sent home because of his deserting action. This was a pretty good initiation that “broke me in” quickly.

As the Allied Forces advanced north from Southern Italy with the fall of Rome, our work supporting that advance became of less importance and it was deemed that we would be of greater use by protecting our 15th Air Force bombers as they started bombing oil fields, munitions manufacturing plants, railroad marshalling yards and other vital installations in Southern France, Germany, Yugoslavia and Austria. The short-range Spit could no longer fly the 600-mile missions, so our squadron was transferred from the 12th Air Force to the 15th Air Force and re-equipped with the P-51 Mustang fighter. We moved from western Italy (Castel Volturno) to eastern Italy on the Adriatic (San Severo).

With this transition we surrendered our Spits for the P-51 (B and C) Mustang for our new six-hour missions. The Spit was the best fighter early in the war, but when we had to take the fight deep into Germany, the Mustang answered the challenge.

We started flying “Ram Rod” (cover bombers only over the target), escort, and strafing missions over southern Europe. The missions were long and usually we met enemy fighters. The Germans flew the 109, and FW 19O both good fighters, with good experienced pilots. However, the P51 was faster and could outturn them, so in combat we had the better plane.

We lived in a barracks complex of rooms around a quadrangle with the airfield a couple miles away. About four to five days a week our missions were announced to us at a 5 AM briefing. Weather, gas management, enemy numbers and wing organization were all recited to our anxious audience. Really tough targets always brought a groan of reality anxious anticipation from us pilots. The atmosphere at those briefings was solemn and tense in anticipation of the danger ahead. By about 7 to 8 we would be assembling for takeoff, then we’d fly 2 1/2 hours to rendezvous with the bombers and cover them as they made their bomb runs. This was the period when the enemy would concentrate its forces in an attempt to down the bombers and prevent them from dropping their lethal loads. We were there to protect our bombers from these attacks. As a result we had a usually quiet ride to the target, then a hairy 20 to 40 minutes with full power careening around the skies either being shot at or chasing someone else. The 109s and FW190s would start after the bombers and we would go after them. Often anticipating our tactics, the Luftwaffe would attack before we could go after the attacking fighters. Extreme survival adrenaline was running at maximum. Sometimes not totally warranted, for example, over Ploesti, when one of our pilots took a leak in his pilot relief tube, got jumped immediately after this operation, and during the ensuing chase by the Kraut, the urine from the tube backed up and spilled all over the windshield. All of a sudden he yelled: “I’ve been hit and I have a glycol leak (radiator fluid). Going to have to bail out.” After said pilot was told to stay with it, the true reason for the yellow liquid on the windscreen was realized!

The first week after we began flying the Mustang in combat, out of 25 pilots, we had lost 12 to enemy action. Everyone had long faces at the early-morning briefings. When Wienner Neustat was announced, we knew we would meet the best enemy fighters in the greatest numbers. Other targets brought varying reactions of relief or anxiety.

Pilots differed in their abilities, their aggressiveness, their tactics, their abandonment and their caution in performing their duties as a fighter pilot. Sam Brown was our leading Ace and in the theater. He would just dive into any situation and usually come out with kills. However, after he had an engine quit on take-off and his plane hurtled at 200 MPH through trees and he was unhurt, and after a tail gunner in an ME 110 put a bullet through his helmet and parted his hair and scalp, he lost all bravado and never flew again. He retired to his room, refused to fly, and was sent home. It did not take much to break one’s confidence. There were many incidents of this kind. So you can see I was full of courage, even though I was not a wild one. Since I was not shot up, had good fortune with my plane, and handled the flying with ability, I did not lose my courage. I like to think that my courage would have continued even under terribly frightening situations, but to be fair maybe the fact that I was unscathed is the reason my courage persisted. Some pilots flew with fear. A major, transferred from Alaska, flew on my wing one time and, after being jumped by some ME 109s, he yelled over the radio that he had engine trouble and implored me to take him home. We flew to Elba and landed and then to home. No problem; he was just scared shitless. He, too, was sent home, even though he outranked almost everyone. (Incidentally, when we went to take off, I was cleared for takeoff, but I could hear someone in a foreign language requesting takeoff too. Since the airstrip had a big rise in it and you had to fly over a “hill,” I decided to wait. Lucky I did, for in a few seconds a plane came roaring over the rise. I would have run into him if I had not waited.)

Howard Baetjer was a very nervous, tense pilot and had dreams of being an Ace. After his first bad luck of being shot down and captured by the Chetniks and escaping from the Partisans (with help from the Chetniks), and I had written his father and told him I had seen his son killed! (I thought I was doing the right thing by informing his father.) Alas, upon returning from a flight to our quarters at San Severo, I found him in our room reclining languidly upon one of the beds begging to go on one more mission. After considerable hesitation and consideration of the Geneva Convention, which disallowed released POWs returning to combat, I said that he could fly on my wing and I would take him. Over Austria we got into a swarm of German fighters and Howard got lost from my flight. After a short while I spotted him coming out of a cloud and had him form on the right of my flight (four planes). Immediately, not far in front, he spotted an ME and went after him, even though I had said stay in formation. Unfortunately the decoy had some buddies above who immediately pounced on him and blew up his plane. I thought for sure he was killed for I saw no chute, but of course we ourselves were very occupied. It turned out that as he hit the ground a group of farmers pounced upon him to destroy him (the Austrians were very unhappy about the Americans bombing their cities and wanted retribution) when a car filled with the Wehrmacht jumped from their command car and riddled the farmers with bullets, captured Howard and had sent to Stalag Lufte prison camp, where he spent the rest of the war. Quite an experience!

One of my great experiences was flying for three years with the same three pals (two from Princeton, one from Wyoming). We stayed together the whole time except for one who was shot down and became a POW. The camaraderie made the rigors of combat more endurable.

I flew 146 missions and was credited with five German planes destroyed, plus one probable. I also destroyed five anti-aircraft batteries. I was in the 12th Air Force from September 1943 to March 1944, and then in the 15th, flying P-51s. The Spitfire was to the P-51 like a Model T to a Cadillac. I was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Distinguished Merit Badges and 20 air medals. I had enough points to be discharged in 1945, as a Captain.

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