For their support of Gen. George Patton ‘s 3rd Army that stopped the German offense in World War II at Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge , 2nd Lt. Bill Wells’ P-47 Thunderbolt squadron received a Presidential Unit Citation.
The 83-year-old Venice, Fla. pilot flew 50 missions with the 509th Fighter Squadron, 405th Fighter Group, 9th Air Force in Europe during World War II. Their squadron’s primary mission: Provide air support for the ground troops as they fought their way across Western Europe.
“What made the P-47 special was it was tough and could take a lot of abuse. I could fly home with four cylinders shot out on my 2,700-horsepower engine and still get her back on the ground,” Wells said. “With four .50-caliber machine guns in each wing, we could fire 180 shells a second at an enemy, which is hard to believe.”
A typical ground support mission would require his squadron of 12 P-47s to take to the air over Nazi-occupied Belgium and bomb a specific target with a single 500-pound bomb strapped to the belly of their planes. After the bomb run they were on their own and could seek out “targets of opportunity.”
“We hit anything on the ground that moved,” Wells said. “We were always on the lookout for German trucks or tanks.”
He tells the story about flying a fighter sweep looking for targets.
“I wasn’t having too much luck and I had to use up my ammunition before I returned to base. I got right on top of this farmhouse and opened up with my machine guns,” Wells recalled. “The whole place blew up in my face. I think it was full of gasoline.
“I was flying a couple of hundred feet off the ground and had to fly through the fireball I had created. I didn’t know how badly my plane was damaged by the flames. It seemed to fly all right,” he said.
“When I got back and circled the field I called the tower and asked them what the underneath of my plane looked like. They told me it didn’t look too bad, but I should stay up there until they got the rest of the squadron down on the ground and then I could attempt to land.
“My crew chief jumped on the wing of my plane as I taxied in. He got a look at the damage and told me to taxi it over to a scrap heap of junk planes because he couldn’t fix it,” Wells said. “The whole undercarriage of my fighter was burned up.”
He got a new P-47.
The small rectangular blue badge in Wells’ shadowbox of medals is his Presidential Unit Citation. He received it for what his squadron did to help Patton’s ground troops break through at Bastogne and win the day.
“When Patton showed up we got word he needed us to clear the road in front of him going into Bastogne,” Wells recalled. “It was around Christmastime 1944. The weather was terrible. Up till then we couldn’t get off the ground because of poor weather conditions.
“The (American) 101st Airborne Division was almost out of ammunition, and there wasn’t any way they were going to hang on much longer against the German offense without immediate help. That’s when (Brig.) Gen. (Anthony) McAuliffe sent the German commander his ‘Nuts’ message when asked to surrender his forces at Bastogne. (McAuliffe’s troops fought on until the siege was lifted.)
“About then the weather cleared a little and we took to the air. Every plane we had was in the air. I was flying two missions a day supporting Patton’s advance.”
Patton’s 3rd Army, spearheaded by the 4th Armored Division, broke through the German encirclement and rescued the beleaguered 101st Airborne. They were down to nothing by the time help arrived. Even today, Wells says old 101st Airborne soldiers will buy him a beer because of the part his 509th Squadron played at Bastogne.
His only serious encounter with a Messerschmidt 109 was almost his undoing. The old pilot can’t remember exactly when or where it happened, but the details of what happened are still as clear to him as if it was yesterday.
“We had been cautioned about losing control of our P-47 while in a tight turn with an enemy plane. I spotted this lone ME-109 and went after it,” Wells said. “I had a high-speed stall while chasing the ME-109. In the back of my mind I remembered hearing if you fired your machine guns while going into a stall it would shock the plane and stop the stall. Just as I was on the way down I pulled the trigger and came out of the stall. The Germany fighter escaped. I flew home and drank a whole bottle of whiskey that night.”
Near the end of the war in Europe, just before May 8, 1945 — V-E Day — Well’s unit got word a flight of German fighters were about to land at their field. The German aviators wanted to stay out of the clutches of the Russian hordes rolling over everything as they moved west, so they flew their planes to the American lines.
“We didn’t shoot at the Stukas and Messerschmidts that landed at our field that afternoon. A bunch of us stood out along the runway and watched them come in. This German pilot got out of his Stuka right in front of me,” Wells recalled. “I said to him, ‘Give me your pistol.’ I also liberated a camera he was carrying.
“Then the German pilot went back to his plane and opened a door on the side of the dive bomber. He helped his girlfriend, dressed in a German uniform, out of the compartment. When the attractive fraulein’s hair tumbled out from under her cap and people realized she was a girl things started happening. Thirty seconds later she was being escorted off the field by a couple of colonels. That’s the last I saw of her. No lieutenant was going to look after a good-looking girl like that.”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Sunday, July 25, 2004 and is republished with permission.
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