March 1971, pp. 26-27, 32

By John F. McAlevey

Recounting of a mission of (then) ETO’s top ranking U.S. fighter Ace Capt. Ray
Wetmore and his wingman, Lt. John F. McAlevey, WWII ETO 359
th Fighter Group,
U.S. 8
Air Force…

Capt. Ray Wetmore

Capt. Ray Wetmore (Second from right) is briefed with fellow pilots. He knocked down
21 enemy planes in the air during WWII. 2
nd Lt. McAlevey does not appear in this photo.

IN THE FIELD ORDERS from Wing Headquarters, March 10, 1945, was programmed
as an easy day for the 359th Fighter Group of the U.S. 8th Air Force. The group’s three
squadrons would escort a small force of B-17’s on a bombing mission of the Ruhr
[River]. A “minimum effort” show.
        “Happy Valley” as the Ruhr was sardonically called, was no easy run for the
bombers. It was alive with anti-aircraft guns. But for the same reason, German fighters, in
short supply in these last months of the war, did not rise often to its defense. In addition,
we learned at a leisurely briefing (our “start engine” time was 1109 hours that day)
Germany was 10/10th cloud covered — the rising of any German fighters through that
was highly unlikely even in areas where they were still operational.
Our group overtook the bombers as they made landfall at the Dutch coast. The
Mustangs would fly at about 22,000 feet, well above the flying Fortresses, for two hours
and four minutes, and then depart for base.
        While the bombers were engaged in their work, “Chairman” (code name for our
fighter group leader) received a call from the 8th Air Force’s new ground controller at
Aachen, asking if we were in a position to be diverted from escort to take out German
dive-bombers attempting to knock out a bridge over the Rhine.
The 370th Squadron’s commander, Lt. Col. Daniel D. McKee, was leading our
group that day.
        He reported no German aerial activity. The bombers could proceed alone. We
were hungry for the action and would be delighted to be vectored to a place where the
Germans were aloft. We heard that Col. McKee attached one condition: ground control
must check with the ground commanders and receive assurance that their anti-aircraft
guns would be stood down when he arrived with his fighters. The bane of Allied fighters
was Allied flak which failed to distinguish between a friendly plane in hot pursuit and the
foe being pursued, and often shot down the Yank or RAF pilot instead.
        Our loosely scattered group was reformed and after receiving the requisite
assurances and other data, began the descent. Halfway back in the 370th Squadron
formation Capt. Ray Wetmore, the top ranking U.S. fighter ace in the ETO, was leading
his flight of four ships.
        Wetmore was under peculiar restraints. He had recently been the subject of a
special directive which prohibited him and certain other top aces from any low level
activity in the combat zone expect in the course of aerial engagement.
        The purpose was to scotch the notion that all top aces “got it” eventually by
keeping them away from that impersonal and purely chance hit by ground fire which can
kill an ace as easily as a neophyte, and all too often had.
        If Wetmore was supposed to leave when the group began its descent that day, he
did not. The temptation was too great. We were being vectored to Germans no one
could see from above, not even Wetmore who was credited with “x-ray eyes” by the
other pilots.
        The cloud cover blanketed Western Europe like a comforter 7,000 feet thick. The
359th Group entered it at about 9,000 feet. It was pea soup immediately. The colonel had
ordered the tightest formation possible before the ships entered. The leaders of each
squadron were on instruments and all others were on them.
        Wetmore’s eyes were fixed on the tail of the ship ahead and inches above him.
        His element leader was Capt. Jimmy Shoffit, a seasoned pilot whose tour was
almost done. Shoffit was having radio trouble. He could neither transmit nor receive and
did not know what was going on. Shortly after the group went on instruments, he
decided to pull out of the formation and, with his wingman, left for home. Wetmore
caught peripherally the motion of Shoffit leaving and turned his head for an instant.
When he turned back, the tail of the ship he had been following through the soup had
        Afraid that he might cut the tail off the ship ahead before he could see it again, he
went completely on instruments. Still continuing his descent, he executed a turn to
starboard to take a new course away from the now invisible tails of the four ships
immediately in front.
        Wetmore was hard on his wingmen. He was a quick wordless and erratic mover.
An instinctive hunter, the few times he led the squadron he managed to scatter it all over
the sky. His wingmen were often left far behind also. This was only my 10th mission,
but I had now flown as his wingman several times. He couldn’t lose me and I became his
almost regular wingman for the rest of the war.
        I stayed with him now in the maneuver in the clouds. The leader of the flight
behind, having no forewarning of the course change, was not prepared to follow and
consequently lost visual contact with us.
        The following flights continued to descend on the original group heading, a
course chosen by the colonel to break through the overcast upstream of the bridge. The
group would then turn north and fly down the river in the clear looking for Jerries.
All, that is, except Wetmore and me. Wetmore’s course change early in the
descent put him miles north of the group. We were unwittingly descending on a course
which broke us out right over the bridgehead at Remagen.
        The ground gunners heard our ships descending and pumped everything they had
into the clouds at the “Germans attacking” the bridge. While we were still in the
overcast, I was startled to see flames erupt from the underside of Wetmore’s ship. Still
engrossed in his instruments, Wetmore did not know he was on fire. The thumping of the
hits in the clouds with no visual evidence of flak could be indistinguishable from
        When I radioed that he was on fire, Wetmore took one fast look out of the cockpit
and then back to the instruments — we were dangerously low now and loss of control
could be death by spiraling out the bottom with no room for recovery, but at almost that
instant we broke out.
        The Eifel hills around Bonn and Remagen are about 1,500 feet high. The bottom
of the overcast was at 2,000 feet — the bridge, the river and the flak were all there. The
air was alive with flak. All around flew hundreds of lobbing tracer shells, the flaming
backside of every fifth or 10th shell, which visually tells the gunner roughly where the
other invisible slugs are going.
        Now Wetmore eluded his new wingman for the first and last time. Still saying
nothing, he decided this flak-filled area at low altitude in the hills over a river was no
place to bail out. One might as well stand upright in an artillery range as descend in a
parachute at that point. He abruptly poured on full power and began a steep climb in his
still burning plane back into the clouds.
        A tight formation is not the way to fly in combat, and I started to pull an
appropriate distance away as soon as we broke out. Now I was not close enough to close
up tightly before the re-entry. I remained the only ship over the bridge, my Mustang
looking for all the world like a Messerschmitt out to do it harm.
        Whether from the lack of coordination, disregard of orders, or as a result of the
unscheduled appearance of our two planes over the bridge, one will never know, but the
guns were certainly not stood down. And there were plenty of them!
Ken Heckler, the military historian, in his The Bridge at Remagen, reports that the antiaircraft
artillery, which the Yanks moved into Remagen to protect the bridge “…was in
fact the heaviest concentration of anti-aircraft troops and guns in the war.”
        When the balance of the 359th Group later arrived — in the clear and in formation
— they were also shot at by our own guns.
        All alone and with no function to perform and the sole target of every gun, I
decided to get out of there. I have never been able to understand how the guns failed to
bring my ship down also. I was only inches away from Wetmore when he was hit. Now
I was the sole aerial target for every gun defending Remagen Bridge. It is the illogical
kind of escape, which tempts one to think fate is saving him for something else.
I pushed full power and headed down a valley between the hills. Away from the
bridge, I switched my radio frequency from combat frequency to the rescue channel to
follow a frightful new drama unfolding on the R/T.
        Wetmore was calling for help. He had pulled up into the overcast to acquire safe
altitude for a bailout, but when he pulled the jettison handle, the canopy snapped up about
two inches after it flew loose and stopped there — jammed.
Wetmore was paying a second price for his keen vision and alertness. He was
the darling of our group’s intelligence officers. Many times at debriefing he reported
seeing things of significance on the ground, which others had not seen. A special camera
therefore had been fitted to the back of his armour plate and aimed off one of the wing
tips so he could bring home photos for S-2 if he thought the subject worth recording. The
cross support for the bubble canopy of the  P-51 was right behind the pilot’s armour plate
when closed. Bubble canopies are normally closed when jettisoned. But the one in
Wetmore’s plane needed to be rolled partly open first because of the camera.
No one had warned him of that.
        The canopy when released had snapped into the slipstream only to ram its cross
arm into the bottom side of the camera, thus seizing the bubble securely so that it could
move no further.
        Trapped in a plane set afire by our own anti-aircraft, the man who had been prohibited
from strafing in order to spare him this very fate was now calling for a homing to a field,
any friendly field where he could put down.
        He was vectored to a field — no good — bulldozers were still making it. No
room to land. Another one for God’s sake! Minutes went by like hours until a second
field further away seemed okay. He was going in, then went off the air.
        After Wetmore was reported on the ground, I asked Aachen for a homing to the
same field. In the ever-worsening weather, I could not find it and sat down instead at an
advanced cargo strip near Liege. Regardless of my desire to follow Wetmore down, I
needed to land anyway. For a long time after leaving the bridge at high speed, I had been
so engrossed in the life and death drama on the R/T that I had forgotten to throttle back. I
consequently had little fuel left.
        The hour was now 1630. On the original mission flight plan the 359th Group was
due back at its base in England at 1520 hours.
        After the ship was fueled and I was fed, I took off for home landing at Air Force
Station 133, East Wrethen, England, at 1840, not without some trouble finding my own
field in the bad weather and darkness.
        S/Sgt. Paczkowski, my crew chief, was waiting at the ship’s revetment. The only
man on the line at that hour — waiting as crew chiefs always do. I had asked “Cannibal”
— the Liege field — to let my outfit know I was safe.
        Back at the pilots’ quarters, I learned the score. No Germans racked up, but three
of our ships and two pilots lost. Wetmore was safe. The fire had burned out before he
reached the second field and, with his hydraulic system shot out, he bellied in safely
without wheels or flaps. They said it took about 20 minutes to pry the canopy off after he
was down.
        Headquarters was right. Even top aces have no skill which protects against flak.
This time however, the pilot cheated death and lived to fly out the remainder of the war.
Wetmore was the highest scoring Yank pilot on duty in the ETO at the end of World War
II. Twenty-one victories in the air and 3-1/2 ground kills were officially his. As his
wingman, I can testify that he never again ventured below 10,000 feet over the continent
except in hot pursuit. JFM

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