VETERANS OF FOREIGN WARS MAGAZINEMarch 1971, pp. 26-27,
U.S. AIR ACE’S BRUSH
ENCOUNTER AT REMAGEN
By John F. McAlevey
Recounting of a mission of (then) ETO’s top
ranking U.S. fighter Ace Capt. Rayth
Wetmore and his wingman, Lt. John F. McAlevey, WWII ETO 359
U.S. 8th Air
Capt. Ray Wetmore (Second from right) is
briefed with fellow pilots. He knocked downnd
Lt. McAlevey does
not appear in this photo.
21 enemy planes in the air during WWII. 2
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
group overtook the bombers as they made landfall at the Dutch
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
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.
reported no German aerial activity. The bombers could proceed
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
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
loosely scattered group was reformed and after receiving the
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.
was under peculiar restraints. He had recently been the subject
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
purpose was to scotch the notion that all top aces “got it”
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.
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
cloud cover blanketed Western Europe like a comforter 7,000 feet
entered it at about 9,000 feet. It was pea soup immediately. The
ordered the tightest formation possible before the ships
entered. The leaders of each
squadron were on instruments and all others were on them.
eyes were fixed on the tail of the ship ahead and inches above
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
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
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.
was hard on his wingmen. He was a quick wordless and erratic
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.
stayed with him now in the maneuver in the clouds. The leader of
behind, having no forewarning of the course change, was not
prepared to follow and
consequently lost visual contact with us.
following flights continued to descend on the original group
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.
ground gunners heard our ships descending and pumped everything
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
I radioed that he was on fire, Wetmore took one fast look out of
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.
Eifel hills around Bonn and Remagen are about 1,500 feet high.
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.
Wetmore eluded his new wingman for the first and last time.
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.
tight formation is not the way to fly in combat, and I started to
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
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
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.
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
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.
was calling for help. He had pulled up into the overcast to
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
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.
canopy when released had snapped into the slipstream only to ram
arm into the bottom side of the camera, thus seizing the bubble
securely so that it could
move no further.
in a plane set afire by our own anti-aircraft, the man who had
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.
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
Wetmore was reported on the ground, I asked Aachen for a homing
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.
hour was now 1630. On the original mission flight plan the 359th
due back at its base in England at 1520 hours.
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.
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.
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 right. Even top aces have no skill which protects against
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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