George Hebbel hangs out with his buddy Ron Oronzio of the da Vinci Society.
By Giovanni Maiorano
“Hebbel, check the shackle on your belly tank. Don’t wanna lose it today; we’re flying a long-range armed recon up the Rhone. Command wants us to scout out targets. Take off at 1100.” Without breaking his stride, First Lt. Rick Crabtree continued on to Hebbel’s section leader, Second Lt. Robert Rader.
Second Lt. George T. Hebbel not only checked the 200-gallon drop tank again but did a second inspection of his eight Browning .50 caliber machine guns. “Full complement, topping off at nearly 300 rounds per gun, wish it could hold more,” mumbled George as he closed the hatch on the left wing of his P-47 Thunderbolt and climbed down. He walked over to Rader who had also just rechecked his fuselage coupling and was wiping his hands clean with his handkerchief.
“Okay, Hebbel, we have a long-ass day ahead. Best we grab breakfast and a few things for the road. Easy on the coffee, we can’t stop to take a leak no time soon.”
“Rader,” said George, “I just was thinking, today is 9 September and this will be my 20th sortie. I’ve flown from Rome to Corsica and now to here in the Province to Aix-en-Provence.”
“Why tell me all this, Hebbel? I was there with ya. Sorties all along the way and only one close call with German Jaegers. Pretty damn lucky I guess.”
“Rader, we shoulda gone after them Junkers.”
“Hebbel, how old are ya now? What 21…and a half, maybe. It weren’t our mission and those JU88’s had more fire power than we did. Don’t you wanna see 22? I’m happy as hell that they turned away. For my money, it was hot enough for us when we were flying cover for the landing in a few weeks back.”
After their not-so-warm breakfast of creamed dry beef and coffee, they reported to the ready room for their final flight briefing. They were not to engage the enemy unless attacked. Just do an armed recon up to Metz on the Moselle River and report back. Crabtree was to be in charge of the mission leading the four of them up the Rhone Valley to find targets for the advancing Allied troops. George was to be Rader’s wingman, nothing new for either of them.
“Looking for targets,” complained George to Rader. “What the hell kinda mission is this? No bombs and 200 extra gallons of fuel. One lucky Jerry shot and we’re toast.” Rader did not respond and they both went to the field to board their planes.
As he flew over Aix-en-Provence he thought of when he was a boy on Broad Channel Island and would watch the Army Air Corps planes. They flew from Floyd Bennett Field to practice takeoff, landings and dropping dummy bombs into Jamaica Bay. They were single-engine bi-planes but it was definitely something that a Depression Era boy wanted to do. At the beginning of WW II, his older brother went into the Coast Guard and was serving in the Pacific as a LST signal man. That was not for George.
Shortly after the Aix-en-Provence fly over, they spotted a German transport train. “Why not?” said Crabtree, “Those Germans are shootin’ at us.” The four planes dropped down and fired on the train. The German soldiers on the train fired back with their rifles. Black smoke soon rose from several of the cars and the train rolled to a stop. “Let’s keep going. The French will take care of what’s left.”
“Well,” said George, “at least we fired our guns and did some damage. Woulda loved to had a 500 pounder or two.” He, gently, pulled the control column of his plane, the joystick, up and made a slow turn north.
Crabtree lead the planes back up to 5,000 feet and would occasionally go up to 10,000. No need to take evasive action as the 1st Airborne and the 7th Army were to have been through the area.
Shortly after the train attack, they were flying over Belfort. The shock waves from the exploding rounds of the German 40 mm anti-aircraft cannons rattled the pilots out of their complaisance. “What the hell!” called Rader, “Those damn guns ain’t supposed to be there!”
“They’ve lined up on us! Ah, shit! I’ve been hit!” barked Crabtree. “Rader, Hebbel, you guys go down low. Duffy and I gotta go high.” He could tell by the “bushes,” smoke from the exploding shells, that they were 40-mm cannons… big and puffy.
Crabtree ordered Rader and George to continue the mission.
“Okay, Rader,” George said matter-of-factly, “We are now an air force of two.”
In what seemed like only a few seconds, they flew into more cannon fire. Rader and George were in the middle of a barrage of exploding 20 mm cannon shells. While the “bushes” were smaller than the 40 mm, one of them damaged George’s Thunderbolt. Smoke was spewing from his engine, thick and black. The Pratt and Whitney was leaking oil and sputtering. George still had control but losing power quickly
George immediately assessed the damage and radioed to Rader. “This ain’t good, Rader. I can do one of two things. Go up to 500 feet and bail out or do a controlled crash landing in this Jug.”
“Whatever the hell you do, Hebbel, drop you belly tank now!”
Two hundred gallons of airplane fuel hit the ground. Unbelievable it did not explode. “Damn,” thought George, “those Jerries will use that fuel.”
George felt his chances were better if he stuck with his Thunderbolt. He pushed the control forward and went into a dive to gain momentum and speed so that he could clear the range of the cannons. On his way down it was bumpy as he flew through a cloud of black smoke. He had to firmly hold the joystick as he went into a gradual glide. “Oh, shit! There’s a German deuce-n-a-half! Can’t go down here.”
He pulled up on the stick to gain whatever distance away from the truck he could muster. The plane was dropping down and loosing speed. The Thunderbolt had no power and was just steadily guiding under George’s control. He saw a heavily wooded area with a clearing in front of it. “Good a place as any.” George radioed to Rader.
After a long slide he stopped. George checked himself. “Thank god, I’m all here. Just need to get hell outta here and make it to those woods.” He immediately jumped out of his damaged plane and ran like a scared rabbit. The woods did not offer much cover. Fortunately there was a thick growth of shrubs and bushes on the edge of the clearing.
It was 1455 by his shattered wristwatch. “Not good. Damn. Still a lot of daylight left.” He murmured as he found a well concealed area in the thick growth. Placing himself on the ground and making himself as small as possible, he covered himself with broken branches.
The German Army truck that George saw from the air came up to his crashed plane. About half of the squad started inspecting the plane and taking items from it. The others went toward where George was hiding to look for him. To be more comfortable in the cockpit, George chose not to take his personal weapon, a .45 Army issue Colt automatic pistol, on this mission. There he was, within inches of the enemy and without a weapon. His heart was in his throat and pumping loud enough for him to hear its every beat.
“The Germans have to hear the pounding. It’s a damn bass drum.” George thought as he kept as still as a possum in headlights. Looking through the bush, George saw two German soldiers walking within four feet of him randomly poking their bayoneted rifles into the bushes. Minutes the length of hours went passed before the Germans moved on to continue their search in the woods. “Guess it was a good thing I didn’t have my pistol. I mighta done something stupid and those seven rounds would have only gotten me killed,” George reflected.
“Well, George, whataya gonna do now? You don’t know where you are. Are there friendlies around here? Will that squad of Germans be coming back? Just gonna sit tight until nightfall.”
The day grew on and no sign of anybody or anything he could see.