P-47 ‘Hell Hawk’ pilot William McChesney recalls D-Day and operations over France

Bill McChesney (Center) and his P-47D Thunderbolt Black Magic. Bill McChesny collection.

14th September 2015 (Updated 23 May 2017) | Celebration, Florida — In the magazine Combat Aircraft (March 2004) Robert F. Dorr and Thomas D. Jones in the magazine Combat Aircraft wrote, “Thunderbolt veterans who fought on the European continent in the final year of World War II feel that their contribution has been forgotten.” They quote retired Colonel James L. ‘Mac’ McWhorter, who flew with the 365th Fighter Group (commonly known as the ‘Hell Hawks’), 386th Fighter Squadron, as having said the following: “People don’t know we were there. . . Air-to-ground action wasn’t glamorous, and it attracted very little attention.” Yet, the fact is that without ‘Jug’ pilots’ contributions and sacrifices the Allied armies could probably not have achieved victory in Europe. Many of the unsung Thunderbolt heroes’ names have slipped into the mist of history. One who gave much but did not receive the recognition due was Colonel (Retired) William (‘Bill’) H. McChesney. Mr. McChesney also spent his combat time with the 365th Fighter Group, but his primary unit of assignment was the 388th Fighter Squadron.

Bill McChesney’s life, like millions of others, was disrupted by the terrible conflict known as the Second World War. It was December 1941, and the United States had just officially entered the conflagration upon the Imperial Japanese Navy air attacks on military facilities at and around Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii. At the time Bill was a freshman at Westminster College. The U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC) and Army Air Forces (USAAF) were ill-equipped with regard to modern military aircraft and desperately needed aviators.

Within a few weeks Kriegsmarine (Nazi Germany’s navy) submarines (unterseebooten in German or U-Boats in English) would soon be hunting and killing shipping along American’s coasts. There were virtually no patrol aircraft and aircrews available to search the thousands of miles of coastal waters. Civilians stepped into the role due to necessity. The Civil Air Patrol began antisubmarine flights near shore in light aircraft modified to carry small bombs and/or depth charges and the Coast Guard Auxiliary undertook maritime support activities.

Bill knew he would be called (drafted) to serve and was determined to defend his country. Therefore, there was no hesitation on his part. On the 22 December 1941 Mr. McChesney made a trip to the local U.S. Army recruiting center. Initially, his specific intention was to enlist in the U.S. Army. However, a corporal, who was wearing a holstered Model 1911 .45-caliber pistol, persuaded young McChesney to test for the USAAC. Bill thought, “Why not? It would mean higher pay, and, besides, what did he have to lose?”

On 27 December McChesney walked down the hall as directed to a room with a sign mounted above outside that read: Army Air Corps Cadet Studies. “Slightly more than two dozen men took the written test and three passed,” said Bill. “One scored 100%, but I was the only applicant who passed the physical exam the next day,” he added. Mr. McChesney’s long and distinguished military aviation career had begun.

Bill McChesney as a U.S. Army aviation cadet. Bill McChesney collection.

Bill McChesney entered the USAAF on 9 May 1942 and reported to the U.S. Post Office at Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. At Cochrane Field (Douglas, Georgia) he underwent primary flight training on Boeing Stearmans, BT-13s and AT-6s. There he made no backseat landings.

After completing the primary course Bill was sent to Mitchell Field at Colesboro, North Carolina, to train on Curtiss P-40Ns. There he logged 10 hours.

At Goldsboro, North Carolina, Mr. McChesney converted to Republic P-47C Thunderbolts. When asked about his thoughts upon first seeing a Thunderbolt (aka ‘Jug’ or ‘Flying Milk Bottle’) fighter, Bill remarked, “It was BIG ALL OVER! A Thunderbolt weighed 10.5 tons.”

McChesney moved on to Richmond Army Air Field in Virginia. “It was crazy there,” he said.

Then Bill found himself in Wilmington, North Carolina, with the 365th Fighter Group, 388th Fighter Squadron. The 365th Fighter Group, commonly known by the moniker the ‘Hell Hawks,’ was formally established on 27 April 1943. The unit was activated on 15 May 1943 and assigned P-47Cs for their advanced training.

Republic P-47C-5-RE 3/4 front view (S/N 41-6601). U.S. Air Force photo.

The P-47C featured strengthened all-metal control surfaces, an upgraded General Electric turbosupercharger, and the P-47C-5 had a centerline hardpoint and belly fuselage shackles for either a 500 lb bomb or a 200 U.S. gallon fuel tank that conformed to the underside of the fuselage, and a whip antenna. This production version was powered the Pratt & Whitney R-2800-59 engine with water-methanol injection which was rated at a war emergency power generation of 2,300 hp.

Simply put, Bill McChesney loved the Thunderbolt. “It was fast and powerful.” He added, “The P-47 was so fast in a dive that high speed dives could result in the airplane entering compressibility.” Compressibility is a condition experienced at near supersonic speeds during which control surfaces are effectively rendered useless and the pilot cannot control the airplane.

Hawker Tempest. Photo: John T. Stemple.

Mr. McChesney pointed out that for a period of time pilots flying very high performance aircraft such as Thunderbolts, Hawker Typhoons, Lockheed P-38 Lightnings, North American P-51 Mustangs and Hawker Tempests sometimes died or nearly perished as a result of encountering the phenomenon.

It took engineers time to understand and design fixes to enable the safe recovery of high performance fighters.

Stateside bases to which the 365th trained included Richmond Army Air Base, Virginia (15 May 1943), Langley Field, Virginia (19 July 1943), Dover Army Air Field, Delaware (11 Aug 1943) and Richmond Army Air Base, Virginia (18 November-4 December 1943). Bill stated, “The 365th trained for and completed aerial gunnery training missions from Millville, New Jersey.”

U.S. Army Transport Brazil and Army tugboat. US Naval Historical Center Photograph NH 98767.

A portion of the fighter group departed Richmond Army Air Base for the United Kingdom on 4 December 1943. A large contingent sailed on the RMS (Royal Merchant Ship) Queen Elizabeth, the fast luxury liner that was impressed for trans-Atlantic transportation of troops. Bill and others followed on U.S. Army Transport ship (USAT) Brazil.

The voyage encompassed January and part of February of 1944. “There were 6 ships in our convoy and some 15,000 troops,” said Bill. “USS Argentina and Esso oil tankers were with us,” he added. “We were escorted by U.S. Navy destroyers, and Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) and Royal Navy corvettes.” Sea conditions “were heavy and rough,” Bill recalled. The troop carriers, oilers, and small escorting naval vessels wallowed and pitched as they slowly made headway toward the British Isles.

A RCN corvette (HMCS Agassiz). Photo: Naval Museum of Manitoba photo.

USS Brazil eventually reached Gourock, Scotland where Bill and his mates disembarked. They were sent by train to Achmer and Shursbury in England. The 365th underwent combat airfield training for two months.

New P-47Ds were then available for the group. The ‘D’ was a marked improvement upon the P-47C. There were minor improvements in the fuel system, engine subsystems, a jettisonable canopy was incorporated as well as a bulletproof windscreen.

Republic P-47D-28-RA Thunderbolt Serial 42-28932 388th Fighter Squadron, 365th Fighter Group RAF Beaulieu, England. U.S. Air Force photo.

All P-47s manufactured to this point had a ‘razorback’ canopy configuration and a tall fuselage ‘back’ or ‘spine’ behind the pilot which unfortunately resulted in poor visibility to the rear. Thunderbolts’ internal firepower consisted of eight .50-caliber machine guns (four mounted within in each wing), and externally they sometimes were loaded with rockets and napalm containers in lieu of iron bombs.

Also during the P-47D production run the original narrow-chorded Curtiss propeller was replaced by props with larger blade surfaces. Yet, with the increased capability came a trade-off. The bigger airscrews had barely 6 inches of ground clearance, and therefore during takeoffs P-47 pilots had to keep the tail down and later carefully flare the airplane during landing. A modification to the undercarriage legs was installed on P-47Ds to provide for extension through an electric motor to compensate for the larger propeller diameter. Bill flew the ‘Razorback’ version during his period of combat flying and Thunderbolts with both types of propellers. In fact, he was one of the squadron pilots who first flew with a high-performance paddle blade. On that first test flight the large propeller ‘ran away’ and Bill was lucky to return to base.

An artist’s rendering of the P-47D Black Magic.

Specifically, within the 9th Air Force the 365th Fighter Group was attached to the 84th Fighter Wing of 9th Tactical Air Command. The 365th relocated to Royal Air Force (RAF) Station Beaulieu in Hampshire. It was also known as USAAF Station AAF 408. RAF Beaulieu was located adjacent to the village of East Boldre, which is about 2 miles west of the village of Beaulieu.

At RAF Beaulieu the 365th continued pre-operational training. Hell Hawks were instrumental in determining the maximum bomb loads for the P-47, which comprised two one-thousand pound bombs and an external fuel tank on the belly rack mount, and were in fact the first group to fly a dive-bombing mission with that particular bomb load. “We lost so many pilots in training,” lamented Bill McChesney. To learn dive-bombing the Hell Hawks flew one or two dry runs.

Hawker Typhoon. RAF photo.

Pilots posted to the RAF’s 2nd Tactical Air Force, equipped with Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Typhoons, trained with the 365th at Beaulieu. Thus, Bill McChesney had the opportunity to see the Royal Air Force’s famous aircraft and interact with the British airmen. “I met an RAF Wing Commander who flew Typhoons. He was a great guy and we became friends.”

Bill stated that the British and Commonwealth flyers were very good airmen.” He added, “The Spits and Tempests were good airplanes.”

Royal Air Force Republic Thunderbolt Mk I.

He noted that the RAF eventually also thought admiring of the pugnacious Thunderbolt. The British air arm received 240 razorback Thunderbolt Mk. Is (P-47Bs) and 590 Mk. IIs (P-47D-25s), which were equipped with the distinctive bubble canopies. These airplanes were utilized by the South East Asia Command (India) for tactical and ground attacks and to escort bomber Liberator bombers during missions against the Imperial Japanese forces in Burma.

The 365th moved to Royal Air Force Station Gosfield on 23 December 1943. RAF Gosfield was located in Essex, England, approximately 5 miles (8.0 km) north of Braintree and some 40 miles (about 64 kilometers) north-northeast of London.

Mr. McChesney remembers his 365th and 388th commanders quite well. General Elwood R. “Pete” Quesada was Commander of the 9th Air Force. Bill stated, “I saw him only once. It was after we had begun combat operations and after ‘a milk run’ [an easy mission].

Colonel Lance Call led the 365th until late June 1944. “Call was tall and in his late 30s. He was big and square and had a rough voice,” reported Bill. He added, “Leading the group Call was okay, but he was not so good at finding targets in woods or around water.”

Perhaps as a result Colonel Ray Stecker assumed command of the fighter group in June 1944. Referencing Colonel Ray Stecker, Bill McChesney stated that Stecker was a “West Point All-American athlete and learned to fly P-47s at Beaulieu.” Ray Stecker commanded until April 1945, and in the post-war period “eventually attained the rank of brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force Reserve.” noted Bill.

Major John Murphy was commander of the 388th and the deputy commander of the Hell Hawks. Bill said the following about Murphy: “He was a 110% West Point man, and a great leader and pilot.” Mr. McChesney also unreservedly stated, “Murphy had no fear.” McChesney added, “When he led you knew everything was okay, but when on the ground we were always asking: Where is he?” Murphy rose to the rank of lieutenant general after the Korean War.

Major Donald Hillman was Bill’s direct commanding officer. “He was an old timer, an excellent pilot who made his way up through the ranks,” remarked McChesney. After the war Hillman flew Boeing B-47s and B-52s, even to the point of commanding two wings. Donald Hillman retired at the rank of colonel.

McChesney’s element leader was Second Lieutenant Robert Fry, who later rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the 388th Fighter Squadron. Bill described Fry, who was also his roommate: “He was very down to earth and had a good head. Fry was an excellent pilot and roommate.”

Maintenance and repair of the Thunderbolts were constant activities. “The ground crews were great,” offered Bill McChesney. “My crew chief was the best. I always let him tell me what he thought about our Jug’s problems and airworthiness. I trusted him with my life,” he stated.

Bill related that aircraft crew chiefs were usually readying fighters at least an hour before a mission, which was often well before breakfast and sunrise. During this period armament loads and ordnance were checked, and engines were run to ensure proper oil pressure and magneto operation. Additionally, flight control movement and other systems were verified. The chief would then go to breakfast and quickly return to assist strap the pilot as he strapped into his seat. Many would then assist the pilot in taxiing by sitting on a wing or walking a wingtip because the pilots could not see what was ahead due to the P-47’s long nose. The crew chiefs were also at the runway to meet the airplane and greet the pilot upon the conclusion of their flights. After a briefing on damage from the pilot, the maintenance personnel would inspect the P-47 and quickly see to its repair and servicing in order to ensure it was again operational as soon as possible. “Their jobs were never done,” remarked Mr. McChesney.

Fw 190A-4. National Museum of the USAF photo 050602-F-1234P-005.

The 365th initiated combat flying with the 9th Air Force on 22 February 1944. The 365th’s first air-to-air victory came on 2 March 199 when Major Coffey of the 387th Fighter Squadron flamed and downed an Focke-Wulf Fw-190 over France. Bill McChesney flew his first mission as a wing man during the first week of March 1944. Usually Mr. McChesney flew in Red Flight. Later that month he went on leave to Southampton.

Over the period of the next two months the 365th’s squadrons gradually converted from the role of escorting 8th Air Force heavy bombers (Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and Consolidated B-24 Liberators) to their essential fighter-bomber missions. Bill McChesney vividly recalled escorting Liberators over France as they pounded German defensive positions. During the transition Hell Hawks pilots began routinely attacking bridges, airfields, marshaling yards and heavy gun positions in preparation for the anticipated Allied invasion of the Continent.

USAAF B-24D Liberators. U.S. DefenseImagery photo VIRIN DF-ST-83-04095.

On 20 April Bill McChesney was one of the pilots who flew the mission that attacked the marshaling yards at Mantes-Gassicourt. He also was a member of the attacking force that pounded Calais and Hasselt, Belgium. 21 May 1944 found McChesney piloting one of the 500 aircraft that swept over France on a rhubarb [low-level hunting] flight. Bill recalled, “We killed masses of Wehrmach tanks, trains and trucks.” However, it was not all one-sided for prior to D-Day the 365th Fighter Group lost two P-47s.

The pace of operations was increasing. Excitement was in the air. On 3 June 1944 ground crews painted black and white ‘Invasion Stripes’ on the Thunderbolts. By this time personnel were already packing for a move to France once suitable fields were secured by Allied forces.

On D-Day Douglas C-47 Skytrains towing WACO gliders loaded with soldiers passed overhead in the predawn darkness. The seemingly endless formations of C-47s, with their droning engines, made it difficult to sleep.

C-47A Skytrain. Photo: Adrian Pingstone via Wikipedia.

By 0300 hours red-eyed crew chiefs were standing by their already serviced P-47s. The first flight briefing took place at 0430. Shortly after dawn Bill and seven other 365th P-47s strafed enemy positions above beyond ‘Red Sector’ on Omaha Beach. One of the Amerocan soldiers Bill was supporting below was Private John Colacchio, a member of the U.S. Army’s Second Infantry Division (the ‘Indianheads) and future close friend.

Bill stated, “The sight of all the assembled ships was incredible. There were hundreds or thousands of them offshore.” He added, “In total, the Allies flew over 15,000 sorties on D-Day.”

One U.S. Army soldier, John Colacchio of the 2nd Infantry Division, was thankful for all the air support as the ‘indianheads’ slugged it out with defending Wehrmacht (Nazi Germany’s army) artillery, infantry and armor. Although they did not know one another at the time, Bill McChesney and John would become good friends many years later after meeting in central Florida where both were residing.

Flights continued as the 365th hit German forces anywhere and everywhere they were exposed. On 17 June 1944 Bill was one of four members of the 388th to fly over and beyond the Red Sector of Omaha Beach. That day each Thunderbolt carried a 1,000 pound bomb. The target was a German 88mm artillery piece that was shelling the bridge leading from the beach and preventing regular supply to the desperate forward forces. Mr. McChesney stated, “The flight leader was killed when two bombs went off simultaneously. His P-47 simply disappeared in the huge blast.”

When Bill’s turn to attack came, much to his chagrin, the Jug pilot found that one bomb was hung [would not release]. He violently rocked the wing, and dove and pulled up suddenly with the hope of the G-forces would cause the ordnance to leave its shackles. Despite all of Bill McChesney’s attempts the bomb refused to leave the wing mounting. McChesney’s commander radioed that Bill had three choices. One was to fly over the English Channel, turn towards France, trim the airplane to dive it into the ground, and then take to his parachute. The second was to parachute over the cold waters of the Channel. A third option was to return to base and attempt a landing with the bomb still attached.

McChesney did not relish the thought of possibly wounding or killing French citizens when his gassed, armed and pilotless Thunderbolt impacted the ground. He also thought it imprudent to hope that a RAF Air Rescue Service launch or Royal Navy vessel could and would fish him out of the Channel before sharks or a Kriegsmarine (Nazi Germany’s navy) vessel arrived. Bill furthermore did not wish to land with a 1,000 bomb that could detach with the slightest jar and explode. None of the options was ideal.

Bill flew towards the English Channel, all the while trying to shake the bomb free. Nothing he tried worked. Eventually he made his way up the Thames River, still attempting to dislodge the stuck bomb. “The sight of the loaded and imperiled P-47 winding its way up the river likely caused quite a stir and a few British stiff upper lips to quiver,” related Bill McChesney.

Finally, Bill tired of the ‘game’ and headed back to base. He related, “I returned and landed without clearing the engine on final as usual, maintaining a hot 160 miles per hour instead of the usual 140 during final approach.” Proudly Mr. McChesney exclaimed, “The sturdy Republic fighter landed perfectly! That was my introduction to how great that airplane [the P-47] was.” He added, “My crew chief was the only man in sight when I landed. Our commanding officer was nowhere to be seen.”  This saga earned William McChesney a Distinguished Flying Cross.

The P-47s nearly unceasingly slugged it out with German defenders. “There were 1,500 P-47s in France alone,” stated Bill. Their mission was two-fold. Protect the ground forces from enemy air attack and destroy any and all obstacles on the ground that prevented our forces from advancing. Faced with determined and overwhelming Allied airpower, the Germans steadily lost ground.

Bill vividly remembers one day while the 365th was flying from Advanced Landing Ground A-4, which was established as a temporary field on 14 June 1944 and located at Deux Jumeaux in Northern France. This day dawned and a thick ground fog blanketed the area. The pilots of the 388th were therefore looking forward to a relaxing breakfast. Instead, Major Murphy told Fry and McChesney, whom he, for some unknown reason, disliked to prepare for a mission. Bill was puzzled: “How could they be expected us to fly when we couldn’t even see our planes on the field?” There would, he soon learned, nevertheless be an eight-plane dive-bombing mission.

The designated 388th pilots suited up and strapped into their P-47 cockpits. Props turned, engines caught and blue smoke belched from the exhausts as the engines roared into life. Before long the Thunderbolts were taxiing into takeoff position on the 3,400 foot tarpaper runway surface.

When ready Murphy advanced his throttle and led the men into the enveloping mist. Bill McChesney found himself blinded by the white envelope and nervous because there were seven other fully fueled, heavily loaded and armed Thunderbolts in very close proximity. To his great relief once the planes reached 1,100 feet bright sunshine and a clear sky greeted them. The Americans calmed somewhat and went about maintaining formation with Murphy in the lead.

Reaching the target coordinates the flight of Hell Hawks looked down to see a large concentration of Wehrmacht troops and armor exposed within a field. The German tanks were Tiger Is, Panzer IV and/or Panthers. Bill McChesney recalled, “We surprised the enemy. They did not expect us to be flying due to the fog, and the soldiers and tank crews began running about frantically.”

Seizing the opportunity, and without hesitation, the P-47s rolled in to attack. Bill continued, “I strafed and dropped my 500 pound bomb in the midst of a number of Panzers. The ensuing explosion flipped, damaged or destroyed one or more tanks and probably wounded or killed a number of infantrymen.”

After the 388th completed their attacks Major Murphy led the gaggle back to A-4. Upon arriving the bewildered pilots saw that the fog was still thick. Murphy switched his four channel radio/transmitter to a ground frequency and spoke to ground control. Personnel below soon began firing yellow flares up through the fog in an effort to mark the runway’s position. Mr. McChesney noted that each flare generated a yellow glow in the mist. Switching back to ‘D’ channel, Murphy radioed to the seven other pilots: “Let’s go!” McChesney wondered to himself, “How am I going to land safely in such foggy conditions?”

Murphy quickly disappeared into the layer of mist as did the others. Trailing the leaders, Bill lowered his landing gear and flaps and throttled back. McChesney and let down at 110 miles per hour and he could see nothing but gray beyond his Thunderbolt. Suddenly there was a shout over the R/T: “Don’t land!”

Bill, who was caught low and slow and near stalling speed, dared not touch any controls for fear of losing controllability of the P-47 which was at that time barely flying. He also knew somewhere in front of him were other unseen Thunderbolts. Mr. McChesney applied gentle pressure to the stick and the nose of his P-47 gradually began to rise. Soon six 388th planes emerged from the top of the fog bank.

Shaken, Bill McChesney thought to himself, “To hell with landing at A-4!” Just then he heard an inaudible internal voice telling him to fly to Cherbourg and land. Bill settled onto a course that would take him to Cherbourg and noticed other pilots following, one of whom was Colonel Stecker. McChesney took the lead with the Group Commander Stecker flying on the much junior pilot’s wing!

Entering the traffic pattern over Cherbourg airfield, the arriving P-47s encountered a flight of Martin B-26 Marauders. Bill McChesney reasoned that the B-26s didn’t need to land, considering their usual fuel load. “I figured,” stated Bill, “the B-26s could fly nearly to Ireland before exhausting their supply.” In contrast, the Thunderbolts’ fuel tanks, McChesney stated, “were very near empty. We could only have a flown a few more minutes.” Bill thought, “To hell with them [the Marauders]. I’m landing! They can wait until we are down.” Bill bluntly stated, “So, we cut in front of the bombers.” He and the others firewalled their throttles and charged ahead. Mr. McChesney added, “After landing I had only 5 gallons of fuel remaining in my tanks. It was a close call.”

“It was later found out,” noted Bill, “that Major Murphy had crashed during his landing attempt at A-4. The wreck closed the runway.” Bill added, “Fry plowed into Murphy’s Thunderbolt.” Nothing was said about the incident, but, rather than suffer discipline over his ill-advised and nearly deadly leadership, “about a month later Murphy was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and up to Group Operations.”

The 365th moved to Azeville, France on 28 June 1944 and continued to dive-bomb targets during the succeeding weeks of the battle for Normandy. On 15 August 1944, the 365th set up shop at Lignerolles, France.

In July the Hell Hawks bombed targets near St Lo, again where John Colacchio and the 2nd Infantry Division were fighting.

During August and September they supported the drive across northern France. Also in September the 365th flew patrols in support of airborne operations in Holland. Relocation to Bretigny, France took place on 3 September 1944 and to Juvincourt, France on 15 September.

On one day the 365th lost seven Thunderbolts. Bill explained, “On takeoff I lost my wingman. Then we had to go in on a different to the target. We discovered that the number two pilot had a hung 500 pound bomb.” Bill McChesney remarked, “Losing so many on one mission was quite a shock.”

Sometime prior to 25 August 1944 Bill engaged in air-to-air combat with Luftwaffe fighters. He was flying a heading of 260 magnetic and headed for the English Channel. Suddenly, he saw 4 ‘dots’ at a 45 degree angle to his P-47. Mr. McChesney allowed the unidentified aircraft to close on him, knowing in his gut that that they were Messerschmitt Bf 109s.

Messerschmitt BF 109E-4 Trop. Australian War Memorial photo 29670.

Bill McChesney pushed the throttle fully forward to ensure that he was climbing at maximum speed. Then, at the most opportune correct moment McChesney dove and flew past a Bf 109. Bill pulled subsequently soared upward, utilizing the energy he had gained in the dive. A pair of 109s then descended and pulled underneath the Thunderbolt’s belly.

McChesney and one Bf 109 pilot began climbing with the hope of gaining an advantage over the other. Both men looked at each other through their canopies for an instant. Bill McChesney knew he could hang on the P-47’s big prop for a few seconds, and that ability was a salvation for him.

Sure enough, Bill maintained a climb but the Messerschmitt stalled and spun out. The Bf 109 faded away below and then again came up even with him. Yet again the Messerschmitt fighter stalled and spun down.

In response Bill McChesney shoved the control stick down and to the left, simultaneously adding left rudder, in a descending turn to port [the left]. A second later he saw a ‘shadow’ pass by at a very high rate of speed. Bill remarked, “That was the fourth Bf 109 going past.” McChesney decided during the next descent he would fire his .50-calbers at the persistent Bf 109 all the way down.

Entering another dive, Bill triggered the eight machine guns for six seconds. McChesney went down and zoomed back skyward. The third Bf 109 climbed and banked away to go home. Bill then dove, pulled up and spotted a German nearby floating to earth beneath a parachute. He had shot down the pesky 109, the fighter having crashed into the trees below. Bill McChesney could have, but  chose not to, fire upon the defeated and defenseless German airman as he dangled beneath his parachute. Afterward, he decided that not firing may have spared him from further enemy attack. Bill even recalled one of the German pilots saluting him when they broke off.

The 9th Tactical Air Command and the Hell Hawks flew in direct support of General Hodges’ First Army. Hodges’ troops liberated Paris in large numbers and then moved through France and Belgium. The 365th arrived at Chievres, Belgium on 4 October 1944. The 365th was later cited by the Belgian government for assisting Allied armies in the period from the invasion of Normandy through the initial phases of the liberation of Belgium.

During the fall of 1944, the 365th supported ground forces with the seizure of Aachen and with the offensive toward the Rhine River. On 21 October 1944 the 365th destroyed and/or damaged numerous enemy fighters over the Bonn-Dusseldorf region of Germany.

On two occasions the Hell Hawks flew in direct support of General Patton’s Third Army. The first was shortly after 1 August 1944. The second was during the Battle of the Bulge, but Bill McChesney would not be participating with his squadron mates during this action because 25 August 1944 proved to be fateful for Mr. McChesney. On this occasion Bill McChesney and other 388th fliers were attacking targets of opportunity. A Luftwaffe airfield came into view far below, and Bill, despite feeling uneasy about the decision, dove to strafe solo because his wingman had decided not to make a pass.

Tracers flashed all about the plummeting Thunderbolt and 9mm bullets and 20mm cannon shells slammed into the big Pratt & Whitney powerplant. The deluge was too much for even the rugged P-47 to absorb. Bill McChesney slid the back the canopy, released his belt and straps and out went over the side. McChesney’s parachute opened and he floated to the ground.

Soon after reaching the ground Wehrmacht soldiers took him prisoner.

Bill was subsequently put aboard a train transporting Allied prisoners to camps. Those with him on the train included a German colonel, who was the commandant of the airfield over which Mr.  McChesney was shot down, along with a guard and a USAAF second lieutenant pilot. The large .50-caliber bullets killed and wounded many of the interred passengers. The junior American officer perished during the strafing.

Unfortunately for the Germans and Allied prisoners, during the journey the train was attacked by North American P-51 Mustangs. The Mustangs strafed heavily, not knowing that there were friendlies aboard. Fortuitously, Bill McChesney had escaped from the train hours before.

McChesney had slipped off the train and escaped his captors. His subsequent hiding, evasion and escape were “not too hard,” explained Bill. “I made many moves in the dark — after midnight,” he said. “I finally found sanctuary in a farmhouse with a French family.”

Bill (R) and John (L) in France – 2014. Source: Bill McChesney.

Inside their farmhouse, Bill “stayed in a third floor attic. The family was in peril of being found out,” noted Mr. McChesney. Bill emphasized the cold hard fact of the situation: “Had the Gestapo found out about the family’s having hidden me they Germans would have executed the males as punishment for aiding and harboring an enemy.” Eventually McChesney discovered a small motorcycle in a barn and permanently made good his escape. Bill remembers the adjacent woods and guns firing as he motored away.

After Mr. McChesney’s self-liberation from enemy territory, the Hell Hawks moved to Metz, France on 27 December 1944 and Florennes/Juzaine, Belgium on 30 January 1945. Bill McChesney was sent back to England and thereafter repatriated to America.

Bill McChesney was awarded a POW Medal and is listed as a prisoner of war in certain records of the day. However, his separation papers do not reflect any record of imprisonment.

After his return to the United States on 16 October 1944, Mr. McChesney had many postings. Initially, he began training as the invasion of Japan was expected. Bill also attended schooling and made flights over Long Island, New York. Subsequently he delivered aircraft to bases, obtained further instruction and finally received orders for the Pacific Theater.

The “Akutan Zero”. A6M2 Zero at NACA Langley Research Center on 7 March 1943. NASA Langley Reserch Center photo EL-1997-00167.

Bill, at some point in 1945, saw a strange aircraft among a line of new North American P-51 Mustangs at Eglin Army Air Field. He asked a line chief about the plane and was told that it was the Mitsubishi A6M Akutan Zero that had crashed in July 1942 on the Aleutian island of Akutan.

By this time Bill had logged time in A-25, AT-6s, Taylor Cubs, Curtiss P-40s, P-51s, P-47s (D and N models). His favorite, said Mr. McChesney, was, not surprisingly, “the Thunderbolt!”

North American F-86F Sabre formation during the Korean War 1953. Photo U.S. Air Force.

With the end of the war Bill McChesney left the military briefly but soon entered the new U.S. Air Force. He held the rank of lieutenant upon joining. McChesney was eventually stationed at Langley Air Force Base and began flying North American F-86 Sabre Jets from the base’s long runways. Then he went to Camp Miles Standish, Massachusetts.

KC-135A refueling B-52D. USAF photo.


During the latter part of his career Bill flew aboard aerial tankers including Boeing KC-97 Stratofreighters and Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers.

Mr. McChesney rose to the rank of full colonel before retiring.

In 2014 Bill McChesney was awarded the Legion d’Honneur (Legion of Honor for U.S. veterans), France’s highest distinction for American servicemembers who risked their lives on behalf of France.

USAF Boeing KC-97L Stratofreighter S/N 52-2630 at RAF Mildenhall. U.S. Air Force photo.

William McChesney passed away on 23 April 2017 and is now flying with angels.

The authors (John Stemple and William Commerford) thank William McChesney, John Colacchio, and Scott McChesney for their assistance and cooperation and assistance during the preparation of this article.

The textual content is based upon a series of interviews between October 2014 and April 2015.

Suggested Viewings

Sources & Suggested Readings

365th Fighter Group

356th Fighter Group restaurant

Akutan Zero

American Tanks and Tank Destroyers of WWII

Barnes, Don, John Crump and Roy Sutherland, Thunderbolts of the Hell Hawks – 365th Fighter Bomber Group in Words, Pictures and Illustrations, Barracuda Studios, 2011.

Dorr, Robert F. and Thomas D. Jones, The Air War Nobody Told You About: P-47 Thunderbolts on the Continent of Europe, 1944-45, Combat Aircraft, March 2004. http://www.365th-fbg.com/modules.php?name=Forums&file=viewtopic&p=548

Dorr, Robert F. and Thomas D, Jones. Hell Hawks: The Untold Story of the American Fliers Who Savaged Hitler’s Wehrmacht, Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2008.

Johnson, Charles R. The History of the Hell Hawks, Southcoast Typesetting, 1975.

Mitsubishi A6M Zero


RAF Beaulieu

USAT Brazil