My wife’s grandfather passed away a few weeks ago. He was an amazing man for dozens of reasons, but one part of his life that stands out for me was his service during World War II. Grandpa was a fighter pilot running missions out of the UK. In 1944 he was shot down and captured by the SS. He spent the rest of the war in POW camp, tortured but not broken. But that’s a story — and a fascinating one — for another time. Recently I was watching an interview that the National Archives did with Grandpa a few years ago. One section of the interview, which I have transcribed here, was rivetting. It does a good job of presenting this man as he really was: practical, brave, and merciful.
I was on my own, our flight was broken up. I got on the tail of a German who turned at me because he was being chased by two others. He didn’t see me, but he made a 90 degree turn so I had to turn in to him. By the time we passed head on I opened fire and in about two turns I was on his tail — the P51 was good, you could turn inside the other guy.
I chased him all over the countryside, gradually losing height. Finally when he got near the deck he made a most peculiar move. Instead of evading the fire he pointed his nose straight at a church. I said to myself, this man is crazy — he thinks I won’t fire because he’s got his nose pointed at a church. But I realized it wasn’t Sunday and there couldn’t be any people in there so I opened fire.
So then he started going all over the place and finally I got him down to where he lost all his speed and all his attitude and he tried his last trick. It’s called “throwing the anchor out”. You cut the gun, you fishtail, you slow the plane down. He didn’t throw flaps, but all of a sudden he was trying to get me to pass him – that’s “throwing the anchor out.” Well I didn’t pass him because the P51 had a better propeller than the German [planes] did.
First thing you know as far as from here to that wall — 25 feet away — we were flying eyeball-to-eyeball. I was lookin’ at him and he was lookin’ at me. I’ll never know why I did it. I said this guy is going to be dead in about one minute. I felt sorry for him. I just wanted to give him a chance to save his life. So I just gave him the ol’ thumbs-down. Any aviator will tell you what that means: put your plane down. And he knew what it meant. I had those two guys [US fighters] behind me screaming to get out of the way and they’d shoot him down instantly but I gave him his chance, put my thumb down and he turned away put his nose down got the first open field. [He] bellied in, his plane tore itself up the two wings and the tail came off but he landed safely ’cause he landed upright on his fuselage.
There was a huge cloud of dust and those two fellows who originally had him in their gunsights when he turned into me they circled him and if he had not been in that cloud of dust they would have strafed him. Everybody had their choice. I would not strafe a guy who was down, but some of the guys they’d strafe anything. When I was a POW the Germans were especially mad because some of our pilots would kill a man in a parachute. Some people think it’s sporting; others don’t I saved that German’s life by ordering him to put his plane down. He had less than 10 seconds to make up his mind he had lost all of his speed so he didn’t have a chance he was going to be shot down. He decided to save his life and he did.
Somebody asked me once, did you claim that plane was shot down? I said sure I did, what do you think? The plane went down and was tore up, but he saved his life. I hated to see a guy lose his life that could fly that well. I don’t know what happened to him he could have come back up and shot at some of our people the next day but we didn’t worry much about those German fighters as much as if they had been winning.
Full video interview here.