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Memories, careers bright for Kansas’ flying aces

July 1, 2002 by Carl Chance
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

history.

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

lives.

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

lines.

“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

deep.

“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

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