Walter Sharbo, P-47 Wolfpack Pilot

Walter Johnson was born on Oct 26, 1923 in Williston ND. When Walter was a teenager, he and his older brother changed their last name to the Americanized version of the real last name their father had in Norway. Walter’s father’s name had been changed to Johnson when he immigrated to America. There were too many Johnsons around and the brothers wanted to be different and at the same time giving a nod to their Norwegian heritage. Walter’s last name was changed to Sharbo.
Walter as a youth was a Boy Scout and earned the Eagle rank. He played sousaphone in the school band. He was an avid model airplane builder and developed a life long love of aviation. He sent numerous hours as a teenager cleaning the local airport hangars in exchange for flying lessons. After graduation from Williston High School, Walter went to St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, where he was intending to major in business. The day after the Japanese attacked Pear Harbor, Walter enlisted the Army Air Corp. Due to the number of enlistments he was not accepted until the following year. Once accepted, he trained as a fighter pilot, earning his wings early in 1944.
Walter Sharbo went on to train in the P-47 Thunderbolt, nicknamed the Jug, at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Walter had a problem. There were no signs of him being sent overseas to get in the fighting. D-day took place in June and the way the Allies were taking territory, there was talk of the war being over by Christmas. Another bad sign, the fighter groups were getting rid of their P-47s, replacing them with the longer-range P-51 Mustangs. It looked like the war would be over before Walter could get into combat. Walter rebelled and got into trouble. The last straw was during a training flight, buzzing sailboats in Delaware Bay and blowing em over with propwash. An Army Officer on the beach took note of the plane’s number and turned it in. Walter was almost court marshalled but his senior officers realized he was too good a flyer to be put in the stockade so got rid of him by sending him across the Atlantic as a replacement pilot.
In Oct. of 44, Walter ended up in England with the 56th Fighter Group, also known as Zemke’s Wolf Pack after commander Hubert Zemke. The 56th FG was one of the last Fighter Groups in the Eighth Air Force that was still flying the P-47. Sharbo started flying missions, escorting bombers into Germany and hitting the deck, strafing aerodromes and locomotives. Walter came back numerous times with severe battle damage and crash landed twice. Once, he brought his shot-up plane back across the channel but couldn’t make his air field, crashing well short of it and clipping a house with a wing, fortunately not injuring the occupants.  Walter became friends with the family of the house and exchanged Christmas cards with them for many years after the war.  The second time he had to belly it in, was in France.  Walter crawled out of the cockpit and noticed a lot of firing going on.  He looked up to see a tank pulling into the clearing.  He couldn’t tell if the tank was German or Allied and was much relieved when a Britt popped out of the hatch, urging him to get in the tank with them.  Walter spent the rest of the day with the British tankers and didn’t relish hearing rounds pinging against the machine.  He would have felt much better being back in the air.  Sharbo credited his survival to the ruggedness of the Jug, he would never have survived that much damage if he had been flying the P-51. Fighter groups that changed from the Thunderbolt to the Mustang had a marked increase in pilot casualties. Walter also started shooting down German aircraft including two ME-109s destroyed on Christmas day, 1944.
The Germans developed the first operational Jet aircraft in the world and it was first flown in 1942. The ME-262 would have been the perfect weapon to use against Allied bombers because it was faster than any fighters the Allies had. Hitler insisted the 262 be developed as a bomber and delayed the fighter development for many months. By the time it was finally deployed as an attack fighter in the summer of 1944. It was too little, too late. The 262 did rack up an impressive number of victories against Allied aircraft. Some sources say as many as 700 fighters and bombers fell to the jet!
Near the end of the war on April 10, 1945, Walter was escorting bombers in the Berlin area and doing lazy S curves to the rear of the bomber stream. He caught sight of several Me-262s coming through the other side of the formation. As they came through to his side, he banked and fired. One jet flew through his rain of 50 calibers, and to his surprise, exploded in a great fire ball.
Walter Sharbo is credited with shooting down the last ME-262 of the war and the last air to air victory for the 56th Fighter Group. Walter ended the war as one of North Dakota’s Aces with 5 and a half-confirmed victories.
After the war, Sharbo married and started working at the JCPenney store in Williston. He later worked for about 5 years as an assistant manager at the Penney’s store in Minot. Sharbo ended up managing the Penney’s store in Belle Fourche SD for many years and retired in 1983. He passed away in 2006