On Saturday I went to a seminar with Tim at the Boeing Museum of Flight, which is maybe 10 minutes from my house. The topic was the 368th Fighter Group (http://www.368thfightergroup.com), a unit that flew P-47 Thunderbolt fighter bombers in the European Theater during World War II. The 368th was the first unit to dive-bomb V-1 buzz bomb sites, the first to support the disembarking troops on D-Day, and the first to be based on the continent after the invasion. The panel consisted of five veterans of the 368th, pilots Major John W. Bauer, Lt. George L. Sutcliffe, Lt. Rupert S. Maxwell, Lt. Walter W. Scott, and crew chief, Sgt. Vernon R. Powers. The moderator was Tim Grace, whose dad flew for the unit.
Tim and I got down there around 12:30 and met up with his friend John. We toured the Personal Courage Wing first. This section was not there the last time I visited the museum some 5 years ago. The upper floor covers WWI and the lower floor WWII and the exhibits were quite good. In fact, I’d like to go back so I can go through them at a more leisurely pace.
The seminar started at 2 pm. The five veterans took their seats and then the moderator came out to start things up. Since he’s the author of a big history of the unit, he opened things up some background on the 368th accompanied by photos. He talked and talked and talked. His intro went on for over half an hour. And it’s not that what he said wasn’t interesting, it was just that the vets were sitting there under the lights waiting and I wanted to hear from them. Finally the moderator finished his remarks and then the vets told some stories. The format could have been better. Basically, each guy got a chance to talk, and they just went from left to right down the table. The moderator didn’t ask any questions or give the guys a chance to interact with other. They were pretty much on their own to talk about whatever. The more laconic guys spent maybe 10 minutes and most garrulous, “Scotty”, spent something like 40 minutes telling the story of how he landed his plane on only one wheel.
Thankfully, the stories the vets had to tell were interesting. One involved a tactic developed to take out Tiger tanks. I had heard about this technique before. The planes would dive at a steep angle and ricochet 50 caliber bullets off the pavement and up into a tank’s underside. This bypassed the Tiger’s formidable armor. It turns out that John Bauer is the guy that came up with this tactic and he told the story of mission on which it happened. George Sutcliffe told the story of how he survived a dogfight with over 30 German planes. This was the basis for an episode of the History Chanel show Dogfights, which I happened to have seen few weeks and is being repeated later this month. Rupert Maxwell was shot down and become a POW, but he didn’t really want to talk about those experiences. Instead he told a funny story about British pilots flying beer over from England to France for them to have a party. They used auxiliary fuel tanks on the wings modified with spigots! The Brits, knowing that Americans liked their beer cold, flew their planes up to 20,000 feet to chill the tanks and then landed to start the party.
The seminar wrapped up around 4. There was a signing afterwards, but I’m not big into autographs so I checked out more exhibits instead. I’m glad I had the opportunity to hear these guys talk about their experiences, as they are well into their 80s. I’m going to have to pay more attention to the programming at the Museum of Flight. With such a resource so close to my house, I’d be foolish not to take more advantage.