|This article originally appeared in the Eagle on Monday, April 1, 1985.|
By Stan Finger
The Wichita Eagle
The debriefing papers are aging, maps detailing missions getting brittle,
snapshots of old buddies beginning to fade.
But their days of shooting down enemy planes – and of being shot down –
are still vivid for World War II fighter aces from Kansas.
“It was the greatest time of my life,” said Loyd Overfield of Leavenworth,
who earned his ace’s wings in the skies of Europe.
“I’ve got my medals on display in my home, and when the women see it,
they say, ‘Men love war.’ And I don’t argue with them. I loved it. I did, I
honestly did. It was exhilarating. There was just something about it.”
Kansans have distinguished themselves throughout aviation’s military
Erwin Bleckley of Wichita was the first pilot ever given the Medal of
Honor. He won the medal for flying desperately needed supplies to the Lost
Battalion surrounded by German troops during the Battle of the Argonne in
October of 1918. Bleckley street in east Wichita is named after the World War
I pilot, who was killed in the decisive battle.
And fiery Wichitan James Jabara became the first jet ace in the nation’s
history during the Korean War. Jabara was an ace in both World War II and
Korea, and at the time of his death in an auto accident in 1966, he was the
leading active combat pilot in the United States.
As many as 20 other Kansans earned the distinguished title of fighter ace
for destroying five enemy aircraft in the air during World War II. Historians
say actual figures on the number of fighter aces from each state vary, because
“ace” is not an official military designation and totals can include pilots
who were either born or lived in a particular state at some time in their
According to records at the Champlin Fighter Aces Museum in Mesa, Ariz.,
more than 1,300 American pilots have earned ace status. Nearly all of the aces
are from World War II. Only 110 aces emerged from World War I, 35 from the
Korean War, and 2 from Vietnam.
The leading American ace of World War II was Richard Bong, who downed 40
enemy planes during the war. But Bong’s total pales compared to Germany’s
leading aces. According to the book “Fighter Aces of the USA,” Erich Hartmann
was credited with 352 confirmed “kills” during the war, and Germany had 15
aces with 200 or more kills.
Contrary to popular belief, said Air Force ace Gordon Compton of Wichita,
there was no trait or trick of the trade that set aces apart from other
fliers. “The trick to becoming an ace,” said Compton, who was credited
with 5 1/2 “kills” over France and Germany, “was staying alive.”
Compton, who flew in more than 100 missions from August 1943 to April
1945, said those war movies that show pilots in locked in mortal combat every
time they took to the air just aren’t true, either.
“How much fighting did I do?” he asked as he rewound a seven-minute film
taken from a camera that activated each time he fired his gun. “You just saw
it. That’s it. For 40 years old, this film’s stood up pretty well.”
The films, used to determine the strength of the enemy in various
locations, showed Compton maneuvering into position behind planes of the Nazi
Luftwaffe and then firing his .50-caliber machine guns in short, quick bursts.
Sometimes the decisive struggle lasted only a few seconds.
“You’d only shoot for two or three seconds at a time,” Compton said as he
watched a German plane catch fire and nosedive toward the ground. “If you hold
it too long, you’ll burn out the gun barrel; you’ll melt the gun barrel. And
you are real careful about when you would shoot, because you don’t have but
about, oh, 30 seconds of ammo on the plane.”
Officials debated the role of the airplane in the military after the end
of World War I. For years, American officials were convinced the airplane had
little more value than providing ground support for ground forces.
But dive-bombing and strafing tactics developed by the Luftwaffe during
the Spanish Civil War – and used to devastating effect in the Nazi blitzkrieg
of Poland, Belgium, Holland and France – dashed that school of thought.
Overfield said he realized the value of air power during the Battle of the
Bulge in December of 1944.
“We were flying over some German gun emplacements, and from the air they
look like circles here and there,” he said.”So one of them took a shot at me,
and I got so mad I dove down and shot the hell out of him. And you know, after
I did that, there wasn’t another one of them that shot at us.
“That really makes you feel powerful. It makes you feel like you can do
anything, like you’re up there with God.”
Overfield said his combat success could be traced to hunting trips he took
as a youth growing up in Leavenworth.
“I was a good wing shot,” he said. “I understood a little bit about
leading, from when I went duck hunting in Missouri as a kid. I’d always waited
until I got in just the right position to shoot. And I’d always shoot fewer
bullets than anybody.”
Technical advancements such as heavier armor and self-sealing tanks gave
the Allies an advantage over their enemies in the air, particularly in the
Pacific. “The Japanese, their aircraft were very vulnerable,” said Eric
Evenson of Wichita, who claimed eight kills flying from aircraft carriers in
the Pacific. “If you gave them a good burst or two, usually they’d blow up.”
Pilots – aces included – knew if they had weaknesses.
“I was just an average pilot,” Overfield said. “I knew that there were
pilots a lot better than me. I knew damn well that if some good pilot got onto
me, that was all.”
And that time came. During the Battle of Falais Gap two months after the
Normanday invasion, a Luftwaffe pilot shot up his engine during a fight low to
the ground, and Overfield had to crash land in a potato field behind German
“There was a bunch of machine guns off, and I thought ‘they’re going to
kill me.’ ” he said. “But it was my machine guns going off because my plane
was on fire. Then here came a bunch of German tanks down the road, and I
ducked into the potato plants. They were pretty tall, and the rows were pretty
“But instead of going into the field, they went down the road next to the
hedgerow. They set up camp next to the potato field, and while they were
there, I just laid out in the middle of the potato field all night. Early the
next morning, they moved out, and got out of the potato field.”
After hiding out with a French family for 10 days, Overfield was able to
crawl back through the front lines dressed in civilian clothes and link up
with a unit of American GIs. A week later, he was back in the air.
Missions rarely had that much excitement, however. The average mission –
in which fighters escorted bombers to their targets – lasted only about four
hours, and the rotating squadrons spent only about a half hour each with the
bombers. The pilots could usually count on being back to the home base or
aircraft carrier in time for dinner.
“When you got back from your mission – if you got back – you could always
count on a hot dinner and a nice bed to sleep in at night,” Evenson said. “We
had it a lot better than the infantry. We really did.”
In the course of earning their ace’s wings, Kansas pilots claimed some
noteworthy achievements. Evenson shot down four Japanese Zeros in one day in a
day-long battle over the Japanese naval stronghold of Truk.
Overfield downed a German Messerschmitt 262 fighter jet in the fall of
1944, in the process becoming only the second Allied pilot to shoot down the
jet that outclassed every other aircraft in the war. Compton said he was one
of only a handful of pilots to shoot down as many as two of the jets.
“If they would have been able to make very many of those,” Compton said,
“we would have been in trouble.”
Friends lost in battle dominate the memories of the pilots’ key missions.
“We lost three pilots the day I got the two kills that made me an ace,”
Evenson said. And, given a chance, he’ll name them.
Compton’s first kill, he recalls, was the result of his determination “to
get even for what they did to Beckham,” his commander.
Even after all these years, Compton can still rattle off the names as one
of his films spans the stone crosses crowding a military cemetery in Englnad.
“I’m lucky,” Compton said as he watched the film. “I don’t have too many
friends buried there.”
©The Wichita Eagle