Photography by Mike Fizer
Fifty-one “legends” in the history of the North American P-51 Mustang came to Columbus, Ohio, in September to be honored at The Gathering of Mustangs and Legends. Lines at the 100-foot-long autograph tent were often 130 feet long, especially when Bob Hoover began his session. Little girls schooled by their moms in the accomplishments of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) stared in awe as veterans told their stories. Nearly 100 spectators gathered at the red tail of a Mustang where a Tuskegee airman gave an impromptu history lesson. Eighty Mustangs came to the event, but 20 more were blocked by either the weather or mechanical and schedule difficulties.
Even after including six pilots on these pages and three more on AOPA Pilot Online, there were many more deserving recognition. For example, during the war Bill Overstreet’s P-51 oxygen system was shot away and he passed out. “When I came to I was out of gas, the engine was dead, and the airplane was in a spin.” He stopped the spin at the treetops, switched tanks, and flew home with tree leaves in his belly scoop. Triple ace C.E. “Bud” Anderson put it simply: “We’re survivors.” Dick Hewitt recalled fellow pilots who did not survive: “One-hundred-twenty-nine flightmates can’t be here today. I’m one of the lucky guys.”
This is for the 129, and all like them.
Vivian Cadman Eddy joined the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) and flew every pursuit fighter in the inventory except the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, delivering North American P-51s from the factory in Los Angeles to Newark, New Jersey, eight times. She also ferried Douglas DC-3s. After the WASP service was disbanded, she was told to buy her own ticket home. “It broke my heart. I didn’t know what to do. I was a lousy typist and secretary, and still can’t take shorthand.” She joined American Airlines, where the job interviewer asked, “Why do you want to be a stewardess?” “Well, you won’t hire me as a pilot,” she answered. Every captain who learned she was a DC-3 pilot invited her to the cockpit to take the controls. She worries that she might still get in trouble with American for flying. (Not likely.)
Don Lopez is best known today as the deputy director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, but Lopez also became an ace in a P-51. However, it was his fourth victory in a Curtiss P-40 that people remember. He played chicken head-on against a Japanese pilot, thinking the enemy would flinch first and turn away. He did (Lopez didn’t) only a millisecond before the two aircraft collided, destroying the enemy aircraft. Lopez was able to fly back to his base missing part of his wing. He was asked whether he had decided to sacrifice himself to destroy the enemy. “I didn’t think about it,” Lopez said. He stayed in the U.S. Air Force to test new jet fighters after earning a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering, and later taught thermodynamics at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He subsequently worked as an engineer on the Apollo and Skylab programs.
Ken Dahlberg was already an ace, with more victories to come, before he was shot down during the Battle of the Bulge. An American tank commander with a German accent came to the rescue, but Dahlberg pointed his sidearm at the commander until he was sure it was safe. Later Dahlberg became a fund-raiser for the re-election of President Richard Nixon and passed on checks made out directly to Dahlberg. One ended up funding the Watergate burglary scandal. Dahlberg was cornered during the Republican National Convention in Miami and told, “You’re not leaving this room until we find out about the $25,000.” The investigator asked whether Dahlberg had fought in World War II and Dahlberg said he was a fighter pilot. The investigator replied, “I was a tank commander from Africa to the Battle of the Bulge and the only fighter pilot I ever saw was some stupid SOB who held a gun on me.”
Ernest E. Bankey was hit three times, once in a P-51. “I’m very lucky I’m here today,” he said. During the Battle of the Bulge on December 27, 1944, there were 100-plus enemy airplanes coming at him and his fellow pilots. He was given credit for 5.5 victories on one flight. At one point in that battle he was over Bonn and saw more than 20 German airplanes below and ahead. Then he turned around and saw at least 20 enemy airplanes behind him—their pilots easily able to spot him. Because of the clouds the German pilots apparently thought Bankey was leading a formation of P-51s and didn’t attack. It occurred to him he needed help, so he radioed to his fellow pilots. “I have 50 Jerries cornered over Bonn. Anybody in the area, I’ll share.” His remarks were reported in the British media, and undoubtedly on the home front.
Art Fiedler was conducting a sweep ahead of approaching bombers above Italy, hoping to catch enemy fighters as they grouped to attack. He saw two Messerschmitt Me 109s and bounced them, destroying one. Fiedler photographed the downed aircraft, and as he was climbing, another Messerschmitt crossed in front of him. He managed to hit the aircraft five or six times, but accidentally slid into formation with the enemy. He couldn’t leave because the German pilot would shoot him down. “I’m looking at him, and he’s looking at me. It seemed like a minute or two.” Fiedler, who left the war as an ace with more than five victories, reached for his .45 caliber sidearm, firmly grasping the gunstock. The German pilot saw that, popped the canopy, and jumped overboard, opening his parachute. Was he going to shoot through his own canopy? “In my state of mind, I would have,” Fiedler said.
Roscoe C. Brown, Jr., received the Congressional Gold Medal in March 2007 on behalf of all Tuskegee airmen nearly 62 years to the day after he shot down a Messerschmitt Me 262 fighter jet at 24,000 feet above Berlin in a P-51C. After that victory he came across a German train with sides that dropped to reveal antiaircraft guns. He stayed low to avoid getting hit but felt an impact on his left wing that folded it and required him to use both hands on the stick to stay level. He told the ground crew he hit flak, but they found nearly three feet of wood with German writing on it. He later became president of Bronx Community College of the City University of New York (CUNY). When in New York you can see his television show, African-American Legends, on the CUNY cable channel. His show called Black Arts on WCBS won an Emmy Award.
Bob “Punchy” Powell was a West Virginia Golden Gloves boxing champion before becoming an ace in World War II. Powell flew his first mission in a Mustang with very little training. A sergeant ran up to him, saying, “The colonel says for you to get 30 minutes in that Mustang. You’re going to fly it tomorrow.” He once returned to base with half of his tail blown away, only to hear the commander order him to circle while others landed. “I don’t want a crashed airplane on my runway.” Another time his aircraft burst into flames shortly after takeoff, requiring him to belly in on soft tilled soil. He ran 50 yards into a nearby woods before the airplane blew up. As the rescue trucks arrived, he emerged to hear an officer reporting his death and ran up to the ambulance medic to ask, “Hey doc, who was it?”
Frederick “Ted” Bullock’s job was to escort bombers to the Ploesti oil fields, where he got three victories in 12 missions. On one of those missions an American pilot accidentally shot 13 bullets into his wing, since the profile of a Mustang was so similar to one of the German fighters. Later on a mission to Russia, with a German Messerschmitt Me 109 in front of him, Bullock accidentally shot at the pilot who had hit him on an earlier mission. He missed. The commander, upon hearing about it, said, “You two can never fly again on the same mission.” In addition to the aircraft he shot down over the Ploesti oil fields, he shot down two Me 109s and an Italian aircraft in German markings that was flown by the Romanian air force. Bullock is a close friend of fellow fighter pilot and test pilot Bob Hoover.
Fred Fehsenfeld flew up to a group of 70 German pilots in Messerschmitt Me 109s on his last official flight in the European theater of operations after the German surrender and led them to Munich, where he accepted the German squadron leader’s surrender. The next day he got to fly one of the Me 109s. In all, he shot down four enemy planes and destroyed three on the ground. Fehsenfeld said the reason the Mustang got its name was because it bucked as it approached “compressibility,” the limiting speed where the controls became ineffective. One pilot reported the problem well above the Mustang’s redline speed of 505 mph (nearing 600 mph). German Tiger tanks had 16 inches of armor and proved invulnerable to the Mustangs until a new tactic was tried. The tank was bombed with napalm, and the heat forced the crew to evacuate.