Old Letters and Memories

The other day I saw Dick Baron’s daughter-in-law at the grocery store.  (Dick passed away in 2007)  She told me they had found a bunch of Dick’s letters that he had written to his mother back in 43 while he was going through flight training.  She said it was very interesting reading and is making copies and documenting the letters.  I asked if any of the letters mentioned the pilot with the blond curls.  She said “no” so I told her the story that Dick had told me and she said she had not heard of the story.  She asked me to write it up so she could include it in with the letters.
    Here it is, along with some other info based on conversations I had with Dick Baron.
During training, Richard Baron flew trainers including the AT6 and then got to fly a real fighter, albeit an old P-40 but it was a fighter plane and that’s what was important.  The P-40 had gained notoriety when it was used by the Flying Tigers in China early in the war, but now was considered obsolete.
Finally the time had come to be assigned to conventional fighters in the Army Air Force. They had the choice of three, the P-51 Mustang, P-38 Lightning and the P-47 Thunderbolt.  The first choice of most new pilots was the Mustang with the liquid cooled engine and streamlined appearance, it was a fast nimble fighter.  Second choice was the Lighting, liquid cooled twin engine, streamlined, one hot bird.  Last choice of the pilots was almost always the Thunderbolt but somebody had to fly it and Dick ended up in the group that was assigned to the P-47.  Since Dick had flown the P-40, he would have easily transitioned into the Mustang.  The Thunderbolt was a whole different deal.  The P-47 was BIG.  It was not streamlined because of the fact it sported a large Pratt & Whitney 18-cylinder two-row air cooled radial engine in the large open front.  It was portly, looking like a warplane that needed to go on a diet.  It weighed almost 11,000 pounds empty, this compares to the nimble P-51 that weighed 6,800 lbs.  The P-47 was nicknamed the “Jug” cause it resembled a big round milk jug!
This was the plane that faced Dick and his unhappy colleagues when they got to the P-47 training base in Florida. This was the first time they had seen the plane up close and it was indeed a monster.  It squatted down on its landing gear under its stubby wings and appeared not to want to fly at all.  How were they ever expected to fly this thing?  There were no smiles in this group.
All heads turned toward a sound in the distance, a P-47 was making its landing approach, but what was this?  The pilot had not extended his landing gear, was he going to belly it in?  When touch down looked emanate the large plane abruptly nosed up into a graceful loop, popped its landing gear out while inverted, then completed its loop with a perfect three point landing.  The plane taxied in and found its place next to the line of P-47s.  After the engine was shut down, the curious group watched as the little pilot pulled back the canopy and crawled out, slipped down to the wing, jumped off the wing down to the left tire, then finally from the tire to the ground.
The little pilot pulled off his flying helmet and all these blond curls came bouncing out!  The flier was a young lady ferry pilot, nineteen years old!!
The new pilots instantly felt better about the plane they were to fly.  This little slip of a gal had gracefully maneuvered the big plane so professionally and proficiently.  They knew if she could do it, so could they.
Fact is the pilots learned to love the P-47 and it performed admirably, despite its size.  The Thunderbolt was rugged and could take a lot of battle damage and still come back home.  Records exist of frustrated enemy pilots who pounded away at a hapless P-47, apparently having no effect on the big fighter.  The P-47 was well armed, 8 fifty caliber machine guns, four in each wing.  It could hold its own in all theaters against lighter enemy fighters.  It also was superb in the fighter bomber role, carrying an external bomb and rocket load of one and a half ton!  Its climb performance increased greatly after big paddle blade props were installed and of course in a dive nothing could match it, one had to watch out though, in a power dive it took a lot of muscle power to pull out.  Dick  Baron remembered one uncomfortable instance where in experimenting diving with a P-47, had to brace both feet on the instrument panel and haul back on the stick with all his might to bring it out of its dive, and just in time as the ground was rapidly reaching up to meet him!
Later in the war, many P-47 Fighter Groups transitioned into the P-51 and most pilots were apprehensive to leave the P-47 behind, they knew there was more protection in the Thunderbolt and the big radial engine could be damaged and still get them home.  If even one small caliber round damaged the cooling system of the Mustang, the game was over, you were going down.  P-47 Pilot fatality rates went up after transitioning into the P-51.
Lt. Baron got to England in May of 1944 and was assigned to the 78th Fighter Group, 84th Squadron.  Dick was given a used P-47D “Razorback” with a faded green paint job and checkerboard nose cowl.  Before long Dick made this plane his own by personalizing it with the name “Mrs. Blue” on the side.  Mrs. Blue had had some history according to her log book, she had been crash landed and fixed up to fly again.  Because of this her air frame must have been slightly sprung because Dick soon learned Mrs. Blue didn’t fly strait!  Mrs. Blue flew at a very slight angle, like a crab.  You would not notice this by watching the plane fly but Dick discovered it during gunnery practice.  To fire on target, Dick had to apply slight rudder to hold the piper of the gun-site off to the side, if he held the piper right in the middle where it was supposed to be, his shots would go wild.
During his tour, Lt. Baron did a lot of ground strafing of enemy targets, airfields, trains, military convoys.  This was a dangerous job and many times Dick’s Squadron mates were hit or shot down by antiaircraft fire while Dick would return unscathed.  It gradually occurred to Dick that the fact his plane didn’t fly perfectly strait may have been throwing off the aim of the German gunners.  The gunners would have to lead the target, shooting not where the plane was but where it was going to be.  Dick’s plane may have fooled them by not flying directly ahead, the shots would miss off to the side.  If this sounds far fetched, just ask someone who has tried to shoot ducks in a high wind that throws off the ducks forward motion.  If you don’t compensate for the wind, you’ll miss every time.
Dick’s luck didn’t hold out forever.  See the story “Last Flight of Mrs. Blue