Cliff Hill recalls ‘Rebel Devil’ was a miracle fighter plane
Clifford Hill, a former resident of Englewood, who now lives in Venice, Fla, flew a P-47 Thunderbolt and later a P-51 Mustang fighter plane in Europe during World War II. He was a member of the 318th Fighter Squadron, 325th Fighter Group of the 15th Air Force in North Africa and Italy.
This is his story.
“In early 1945 at a briefing, we were given our mission for the day. The briefing officer told us our target would be a small town in East Germany. Intelligence learned it produced 30 to 40 percent of the ball bearings for the Nazi war machine.
“It was a small raid. We had 100 B-24 Liberator bombers to escort. We rendezvoused and took our big friends to the target. They dropped their loads and headed for home.
“Our three squadrons dropped to the deck for a fighter sweep all the way back to the Adriatic Sea. The hunting was poor. The roads and rail lines were empty. The Nazis moved under the cover of darkness to avoid the Allied fighters that were flying all over the German skies.
“In southern Germany we came upon a small village. Nearby was a sub station. I fired a one-second burst and a Fourth of July fireworks ensued.
“We arrived at a rail line in Yugoslavia heading south in a narrow valley with ridges some 200 feet high on each side. Parallel to the railroad was a dirt track.
“About five minutes from our turning point for home I saw a Jerry command car stopped in the road. Six or so (Germans) were sitting on a rail going potty. My first thought was to send them to Hades, but instead I let go a short burst on the command car which disintegrated in a ball of fire and smoke.
“As I passed over the scene at some 20 feet, all I could see was a bunch of eyeballs about the size of saucers. I had caught these dudes with their pants down. Literally.
“Up ahead a few miles was a pine forest. As we pulled up to clear the trees, I got a brief glimpse of a siding under my right wing. A mini marshaling yard with 30 or 40 boxcars and flatcars were hiding, probably waiting for dark.
“At the same instant I heard an explosion. I grabbed the control stick with both hands to keep from going into the trees. It took all the strength I could muster to maintain level flight. My trim tabs were not functioning. The nose of ‘Rebel Devil’ felt like it weighed a ton.
“A mile or two ahead the valley ended. The rail line went into a tunnel. Lawdy! The ridge ahead was about 200 feet above me. I dropped the air speed to 200 mph. That took a wee bit of the pressure off the nose. I cleared the ridge by inches.
“We turned westward and headed for home. I slowly climbed to 3,000 feet. My element leader called ahead to tell the field I was in trouble, so they cleared the runway for me. Dropping down to 20 feet above the Adriatic, I headed straight into the strip and landed safely.
“My P-51 rolled to a stop. The ‘meat wagon’ and medics were waiting. My crew chief climbed up on my left wing and ‘Doc Swift’ was on my right wing. Even though I was not hurt at all, it took me two minutes to gain enough strength to unlock my bubble canopy.
“On the ground I saw the damage done to my P-51. Had I realized the extent of the damage I would have bailed out over the Adriatic.
“The entire left side of the fuselage was gone, all the way from the cockpit to the horizontal stabilizer. Most of the spars and ribs were gone, too. How the tail stayed on I do not know.
“Most of the control cables were cut in two. The main cable that controls the elevators was frayed with only the center core remaining. If that lone wire had snapped, it would have been ‘adios amigo.’
“Ten more missions to go. I completed my tour of duty and returned to America.”
Lt. Hill flew 60 missions during the invasion of North Africa and Europe, shot down four enemy planes, received four battle stars for participating in four major engagements and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for valor.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Thursday, June 6, 2002 and is republished with permission.
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