The “greatest generation” as a whole did not need a reason to fight. Provoked by a ferocious Axis that threatened to enslave the world, hundreds and thousands of young men answered the call to arms. Preserving freedom, peace and security for future generations were the primary reason men signed up for service. Others saw it as a patriotic duty to their country, while some saw glamour in war. For whatever reason each man had, all were inspired in some fashion or another. And for one young flier, it took the unselfish act of a six-year-old boy to realize what he was fighting for. This is Ken Helfrecht’s story.
An aviator at the beginning
Shortly before turning eighteen, I had enlisted in the Army Air Force. I acquired an illness that sidelined me for a couple of months. My original class went on ahead without me and when I recovered, I was placed with a group of prior service men. They were a grisly bunch and filled me with a lot of baloney! Training with these rogues caused me to grow up fast, but they also taught me things that saved my butt!
After earning my wings I was selected for fighters. Here I was, not even old enough to drink and barely old enough to shave. The closest thing to any real horsepower I touched before the war was tinkering on used cars. And now, blindfolded with minimal flight time under my belt, they put me into a real hotrod called a P-40.
I really enjoyed checking out in the P-40. I found landings to be real simple, even with the narrow gear. Not only did they give me horsepower, but they gave me guns, too! Learning to shoot with a fixed sight, a trigger on the stick along with a tit on top for dropping bombs all became second nature to me. Unfortunately, I had to unlearn those skills when I arrived in Europe.
Joining the 4th Fighter Group
The pipeline of replacement pilots was starting to build when I was deemed combat ready. I arrived in Goxhill, England, on September 12, 1944, where I was introduced to the P-51B Mustang. I had never been close to one, let alone flew one before. With all the glass and bars over the canopy, it looked like it was dressed with French windows; I just hoped I could see out of it. After completing my checkout and orientation of the English coast, I was placed into a fighter group.
I found my name and assignment posted under “Fourth Fighter Group.” I rejoiced at the prospect of being a member of the oldest fighter group in the ETO. The heritage of knowing that the Fourth, having been formed around the original three Eagle Squadrons, caused a beaming proud smile across my face. Men next to me thought otherwise. “They kill them left and right there!” “You’ll never survive,” came the words of “encouragement” from the non-believers gathered around me. It didn’t bother me a bit. Besides, I was young and dumb.
Arriving at Debden Airfield, I joined the 334th Fighter Squadron. I began flying combat in late October 1944, but there was something different about the P-51B I was flying. It was still hard to see out of and was colder than an icebox inside, but up front on the dash was a brand spankin’ new gyro gunsight; I had never seen one in my short fighter pilot life as all my gunnery training was with fixed sights. I guess during wartime, some things are less formal. I was shown my airplane, given words of encouragement by my crew who said, “Good luck and don’t get your ass shot off,” and off I went into the unknown world of aerial combat.
By Captain Kenneth G. Helfrecht USAAC (Ret.) As told to and written by James P. Busha
To read the article from the February 2015 issue of Flight Journal, click here.