Heroes of WWII
By Karen S. Lynch
Richard DeBaugh is a retired English teacher from Knoxville High but also a Veteran of WWII. DeBaugh flew a P-47 fighter plane over New Guinea and the Philippines during WWII as a member of the 41st Fighter Squadron, 35th Fighter group, called the “Flying Buzz-Saw.” His fighter group flew cover for B-24s from the 307th on a few missions.
The 41st fighter squadron earned three Presidential Unit Citations during the war, given for “extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy.” The award is the equivalent of the Distinguished Service Cross given to an individual. The first award given to the 41st Squadron was for the Papuan New Guinea Campaign, the second for successfully repelling an enemy bomber force, which attacked the new airdrome at Tsili-Tsili, and the third for destroying enemy air forces in the Borneo area. The unit still holds annual reunions. This past year the 41st veterans met at the WWII memorial in Washington, D.C.
Following, is the story of the final mission of fighter pilot Richard DeBaugh, written in his own words. Of special note, the “wing tanks” (also called “drop tanks”) referenced in his story were produced at Midwest Manufacturing (the former Maytag plant) during WWII. These fuel tanks allowed the fighter planes to perform long missions by using the extra tanks to reach their destination, reserving the fuel in their on-board tanks to return to base. This is a riveting story, best told by the brave pilot himself.
By Richard DeBaugh
Talking about it, writing about it, and most of all, thinking about it uncountable times have given it permanence in my mind. My final mission as a 41st Fighter Squadron pilot has haunted my thoughts and imprinted my being since that memorable day, April 2, 1945.
The 41st was flying out of Mangalden, Lingayan Gulf, Luzon, in the spring of 1945. We had been flying support missions for the Army ground forces, strafing and dive-bombing. Also, we would take on those more distant flights that took us out on fighter sweeps, bomber cover, and dive-bombing missions north to Formosa. My final mission was a dive-bombing flight to Formosa, to where there was a railroad hub that continued as a useful adjunct to enemy operations. The assignment to hit this target devolved upon the 41st; I was to lead a twelve-ship flight to reach the target, bomb it, and return to Mangalden. Simple enough. Some of us who were old hands had some initial misgivings about the mission. Considering all that went into a mission, taking off with two wing tanks and a 280-pound fragmentation belly bomb seemed barely worth the effort. But no matter, a mission was a mission, straight down from Fighter Command.
We took off. A 41st Fighter Squadron flight of twelve ships, proud pilots airborne in planes adorned with blazonry and insignia, was engaged in another mission in the progression of the war. The trip north was smooth; weather CAVU, all aircraft functioning, 10,000 feet of altitude. One hour and forty-five minutes into the flight, Formosa rose up like a ship on the horizon. With a small course adjustment to effect a flyover of a small island of the Pescadores group off the west coast of Formosa, we headed for this key point, reached it, and then flew due east to our target. Within minutes we were over Formosa and nearly to the railroad center. Antiaircraft fire was visible ahead but not tracking us effectively. Then, over the target and first in line, tanks dropped, armament switches on, I began my dive. Things looked good as I bore down on those tracks while hurling bursts of my fifties to repress Japanese ground fire. Suddenly, things became squeamishly uncomfortable as tracer fire came at me – close, over my wings, past my canopy. I was flying down into a maelstrom, a concentration of enemy fury. I sensed that I had taken some hits. Although I had felt nothing distinct enough to be sure, there was that evocation of the special relationship which exists between a pilot and his plane that made me sense the taking of hits.
Even so, I safely cleared the area and looked back with satisfaction that all twelve ships had cleared and, importantly, that the bombing had been effective. We formed up quickly for the ride home; my plane seemed to respond normally, and instrumentation readings were on the mark as we gained altitude to 10,000 feet. The Weather continued to be favorable, and the homeward leg of the mission was underway. I should have been comfortable with the situation. Pilots should not be concerned with forebodings; premonitions were lunacies to be avoided. But these persisted, lurked in my mind. Even though my twelve-ship flight eventually reached Lingayen Gulf, ten minutes from touch-down, now at 1,000 feet of altitude, a safe conclusion to the mission at last seemed assured. And then it happened!
My cockpit suddenly filled with smoke along with a choking, eye-watering, gagging stench which was quickly alleviated when I put on my oxygen mask. The engine still appeared to be running smoothly, but nothing electrical functioned. My radio was dead. Just minutes from landing, my wingman was able to get my hand-signaled message to clear us for touchdown; he called the tower and then gave me the Roger sign to take the squadron on in. Perhaps my worry about premonitions had been baseless. Just another “Jug” landing and all would be well.
This time, however, instead of the usual tight 360 pattern I made a gentle thing of it, a broader, shallower turn. Lining up my approach at about 100 feet, near the end of the runway, flaps set, wheels down, this would be a grease job, simply smooth it in. But it was not to be. A C-47 had pulled out on the runway, a red light and a flare from the tower! The message was clear; pull ‘er up and go around, try it a second time. Full throttle, reset the prop pitch, up with the wheels, try again.
Damn! The reality of a certain crash immediately hit me when there was no surge of power. Even so, my training kicked in – the most important being that which was self-imposed, training wherein I had pictured myself in every possible direful emergency and then mentally reacting in response. This was just such an emergency, and throughout the next few seconds, I did what I could in response to my situation. I was able to maintain altitude over the length of the runway, barely above stalling speed, wheels supposedly coming up, trying to “shift gears” by using the manual prop pitch control for the Curtiss electric propeller, attempting to “think” my way to safety. Nothing worked. The inevitable crash was at hand. Then I hit.
I woke up in the hospital, a nearby Army medical installation. First, I remember being apprised of my physical condition. I had been amazingly fortunate: nothing broken, no cuts, many bruises and abrasions, a slight concussion. One of the ironies of the crash is that while I was in the crucible of it, I heard none of its sound and fury – I was unconscious after one of my shoulder straps broke and I had been wrenched forward striking my head on the gun sight. Then I learned of the accident itself, an incredible thing to live through.
As I lost altitude, a turn at stalling speed would have been a certain death warrant so I continued straight ahead, straight toward the town of Mangalden, which was a mile away and directly in line with the airstrip. I had crashed through a schoolhouse (no pupils present,) which was on one side of the town square. Momentum had taken me on into the middle of the square stopping in front of a statue of some famous Philippine figure. A wing had been left in the schoolhouse, the engine has been wrenched loose, and the plane caught fire. I was told that some heroic GIs had pulled me from the wreckage. As it later developed, I realized that faithful old #172 and I had called it quits together.
To this day, my sense is that it was the “Jug” that saved me. The outfit was in its transition period to the Mustangs at the time. There is no doubt that the P-51 would not have seen me through the crash. How lucky can a guy be?
A Tribute to Richard DeBaugh
By Karen S. Lynch ©2006
On silver-lit wings, the sunlight shone.
So proudly she flew while taking me home.
Wings soaring gracefully, like Eagles flying high.
The weather we hoped was always “blue sky.”
Just one more flight, that day fate not her thing,
Through the schoolhouse, losing a wing.
Her death came that day in battle too soon,
With a smoking cockpit from her battle wounds.
She served her country and the pilot she flew,
Accomplished her mission, protecting twelve ships too.
Saving this young pilot from a certain death,
That day in the town square, where she came to rest.
What a brave old soldier she was when she flew.
She served me well, that faithful old one-seventy-two.