There were two things that got me interested in aviation while I was a kid growing up in the 1930s, model airplanes and my father Howard. My dad, of course, was the bigger influence, not because of his job in the banking business, but what he accomplished years before I was even born. Although he rarely spoke of his exploits, my father flew Sopwith Camels with the 17th Aero Squadron during the “War to end all wars”—WW I. After the war ended he closed that chapter of his life and walked away from flying. He believed he was simply a young man doing his job for his country, did what the military had asked him to do, got out of the service, met my mother and started a family. The trouble was there was one historic issue he couldn’t change or hide; from mid-September of 1918 through late October, my father had shot down eight enemy airplanes and achieved ace status under the command of the Royal Air Force.
He kept his aerial combat memories hidden from most of us and it wasn’t until WW II was just beginning to rear its ugly head when he gave me some “fatherly advice.” He said, “Clinton, now that you reached the age known as ‘draft bait,’ you really need to think about volunteering. They have an obligation to make available your choice of service if you’re qualified. My advice for you is to join the Air Corps and become a pilot, before you end up in the infantry slinging a rifle and slogging through mud up to your knees.” I listened to his words of wisdom and before long, I was earning my wings and wound up in fighters.
Tricks of the trade
By the time I turned 19 years old, Uncle Sam thought I was ready to fly a fighter—personally, I think I needed a little more practice. I started out in the P-40 Warhawk and during my first flight I thought, “Oh, dear, this small airplane has way too much power!” The P-40 had twice that of the AT-6 that I had been used to, but it was also much more maneuverable. It had very good control responses; heck, all the fighters did. When you pull back on the stick, you go like hell straight up. But when you push the nose over, you go downhill even faster! Make no mistake; flying a fighter was a very physically demanding experience, especially with the amount of Gs we pulled during evasive maneuvers. All in all the P-40 was a good airplane, but it was getting tired, short on range and ran out of breath above 20,000 feet. The Thunderbolt, on the other hand, was a whole ’nother animal.
I was sent to the East Coast where I became acquainted with my new front office. The P-47 was a behemoth; there was almost enough room inside the cockpit to rent out the other half! Our training focused on gunnery and formation work along with low-level navigation, which would really come in handy later on in Europe. We had heard stories about the ruggedness of the Jug and unfortunately, I proved that point during one of my training flights.
We were sent out to a point a considerable distance away from our base and told to drop to the deck and find our way back home. I came zooming across a big cornfield and must have been daydreaming because I failed to notice the line of big high trees in front of me. I was a little late pulling back on the stick and took a full six feet off the tops of the trees. When I landed, the entire belly was covered in the remains of the trees I killed. My crew chief came out, scratched his head and said, “Don’t worry about it, Lieutenant, I’ll get it cleaned up before the CO sees it.” That crew chief was like all the others I had—a bunch of great guys!
Deemed combat ready, I was sent to England and became a replacement pilot with the 361st Fighter Squadron, 356th Fighter Group. Our main job was to protect the bombers. One way to do that was to shoot down the enemy fighters that showed up when the bomber stream was over Europe. Finding the Luftwaffe was not hard; shooting them down was the hard part! As a new wingman, it was my job to act as if my head was on a swivel and protect my leader from enemy fighters. In combat I soon found that the enemy appears very quickly, and disappears even quicker! The P-47 was a great gun platform, not only in the aerial sense, but also for use against ground targets, which we frequently went after, after our release from the bombers. I fell in love with the Jug and felt a sense of betrayal when we had to trade them in.
To read the article from the February 2013 issue of Flight Journal, click here.
By Clinton D. Burdick, Captain USAAC (Ret.) As told to and written by James P. Busha