United States Air Force (Retired)
487th Fighter Squadron
“The Ruhr will not be subjected to a single bomb. If an enemy bomber reaches the Ruhr, my name is not Hermann Goering: you can call me Meier!” – Reich Marshal Hermann Goering
“The day I saw Mustangs over Berlin, I knew the jig was up.” Commander-In-Chief of the German Air Force Hermann Goering
Air superiority is the ultimate expression of military power. – Winston Churchill.
Wally Starck piloted one of those North American P-51 Mustangs over Berlin escorting American bombers on raids against the Ruhr region of Germany, Berlin and other cities. The approximately 1,300 square mile Ruhr region was the principal manufacturing center of Germany and formerly known as one of the world’s greatest industrial complexes. The Ruhr, which was vital in the production of armaments for the German military, was a major bombing target for Allied forces during World War II.
Wally was born the son of a Lutheran minister in Hoisington, Kansas on September 2, 1920. He describes his mother as a sweet lady who stated “I will never marry a minister. I will never marry a man with a mustache and I will never marry a man with red hair.” Wally’s father possessed all the characteristics. Wally was the second oldest child and the only surviving member of a family of five children. The family moved about every two years in response to his father’s “callings”. His father passed away in 1933 and his mother moved the family to her hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Wally’s dreams of a career as a fighter pilot began about age three when he would “sit in the yard of the family home on two wooden boards arranged to represent the wings and body of an airplane.” He doesn’t recall what he used for power. Two empty Campbell soup cans under the “wing” served as lights. He didn’t see a real airplane for another five years but it made no difference; he knew what he wanted to do.
He graduated from high school but had no money for college. Two years of college were required to enter the Army Air Corps pilot training program. Wally worked to help sustain the family and managed to save some money from his job as an assistant theatre manager. He hired a retired college professor to tutor him in preparation for taking the two year college equivalent examination required to enter the Army Air Corps program. When the war started, he was a
student at the University of Wisconsin. The two-year college requirement was dropped and Wally took the five-hour written pilot entry exam. He passed both the written exam and his physical exam and was inducted into the Army Air Corps in January 1942. Wally was about to realize his dream.
After approximately 11 months of flight training at various training sites in Texas he graduated and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in the Army Air Corps with further assignment to Fighter Command. He was going to be a fighter pilot.
Wally was ordered to Westover Field in Massachusetts where the 352nd Fighter Group was being formed and began training in the Republic Aviation P-47. Additional training near New Haven, Connecticut, at La Guardia Field in New York and finally Mitchell Field on Long Island, New York was a prelude to his being shipped to England on the Queen Mary. His group arrived in Bodney, England in July 1943 where he and his fellow pilots awaited the arrival of their aircraft. He described the first P-47 arrival: “A plane passed over the field, turned and executed a perfect approach and landing. After taxiing up to the squadron area, the pilot jumped out, removed her helmet and shook out her long blonde hair.” It was somewhat of an ego-deflating moment for him and his fellow “macho” fighter pilots.
The use of women to ferry airplanes was not unusual during WWII. The Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) was formed on September 10, 1942. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt called them a “weapon waiting to be used”. Due to the success of the program, the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) unit was formed in August 1943. The WASP’s flew every airplane in the United States Army Air Force’s inventory, including half of all pursuit planes delivered during the war. The female pilots logged 60 million miles flying their planes; 38 WASP’s were killed performing their duties.
The Republic Aviation P-47 (Thunderbolt) was a fast, heavily armed, rugged aircraft but had a limited range. Equipped with a belly tank, the P-47 could escort bombers flying out of England only as far as the German border. Wally recalls “We could easily see the swarms of German fighters circling and waiting to pounce on the bombers when we had to turn back towards England.” These were not good days for the bomber crews. To illustrate, on June 13, 1943 when 60 B-17 bombers attacked Kiel in Northwest Germany and after the P-47s turned for home, the AAF bombers were attacked by Luftwaffe fighter interceptors and 37 percent of the 60 B-17s were shot down.
Without fighter escort to their targets deep in Germany, the Allied bombers were at the mercy of the German fighters. During what was termed “The Big Week”, February 20 to 25, 1944, 3,800 bombers were dispatched from England and Italy, with 226 bombers and 28 fighters being lost. The number of U.S. personnel killed, missing, and seriously wounded totaled 2,600. The German fighters were reluctant air combat participants prior to February but that changed during the next two months. It became apparent that AAF bomber formations would have to have escort fighters all the way to the target. Unfortunately, the P-47’s and British Spitfires did not have sufficient range to cover missions deep into Germany. The losses were unacceptable. A solution was needed.
The solution, in the form of the first early model North American P-51’s (Mustang’s) arrived in April 1944. They were given to another fighter squadron while Wally’s squadron continued using the P-47. During a joint mission with the fighter squadron flying the P-51’s, Wally and his fellow P-47 pilots had to turn back at the German border. The P-51’s flew on and eventually downed about 13 German fighter planes that day. The long-range P-51 Mustang was the solution. He and his fellow pilots wanted the P-51’s to enable them to get into the fight deep into Germany. Finally, their P-51’s arrived.
A colonel from another Fighter Group familiar with the Mustang led them on an orientation flight over France. There were 48 planes in three squadrons. Wally’s unit was the 487th Fighter Squadron, 352nd Fighter Group (FG). “There was plenty of anti-aircraft fire but no German fighters. Our orders were not to engage any enemy aircraft. It was strictly an orientation flight. Suddenly a German Me 109 fighter plane appeared and passed down the side of their formation. Our adrenalin went way up high. The German was scouting the formation and apparently recording our groups’ markings. The 487th airplanes were marked with a large ‘HO’ on the fuselage plus a single letter on the tail which identified individual aircraft. Mine was an ‘X’.”
The 352nd FG was quite a fighting machine. During WWII they flew 420 missions, 59,387 operational combat hours, destroyed 776 enemy aircraft and had 29 aerial aces. The noses of their aircraft were painted blue. Their leader was Colonel J. C. Meyer who later went on to become vice-chief of staff of the Air Force. German Reich Marshal Hermann Goering was quoted as saying “Everything would be fine if it were not for those Blue-Nosed Bastards from Bodney.” It quickly became their motto. Wally Starck personally accounted for 7 of those downed aircraft including three on his last mission. “The Germans had good pilots but not enough of them. Their replacements were not well trained and some were only 17 years old.” The P-51 was considered by many to be the finest fighter aircraft of WWII. It was fast, maneuverable and, most importantly, it had incredible range. It could remain aloft for six hours and stay with the bombers they were escorting for the entire mission. The performance characteristics of the American P-51 and German Me 109 were similar but the incessant bombing of German oil refineries restricted both the supply and octane rating of their gasoline. The poor quality of German gasoline limited the Me 109’s performance.
The German pilots had orders not to engage Allied fighter aircraft. Hitler wanted them to concentrate on shooting down bombers which were destroying much of Germany. They would attack bomber formations in groups of 100 to 200 fighters diving through the bomber formations with their 20mm canons blazing. The American tactic was to “meet the German fighters head on, break up their formations, get on their tails and dispose of them.” His first aerial dogfight experience involved coming upon a Me 109 engaged in a fight with a P-47. The Me 109 shot the P-47 down and then went after a second P-47 nearby. As Wally jumped into the fight he thought “Wally, you stoop, that guy just shot down a P-47 and here you are going after him. He and I were in a maneuver called a luffberry where we were both in a tight turn, cockpit to cockpit a few hundred feet apart, each attempting to gain an advantage by getting on the others tail. He was looking at me and I was looking at him. Finally, I managed to get the advantage and began to fire. Pieces were falling off his aircraft and it began to smoke. He quit and his plane started to go down. I broke off at about 14,000 feet and started back up to my formation. We saw the plane hit the ground. There was no chute.” Wally describes aerial combat as being different from action that the Army or Marines experienced. “We spoke in terms of shooting down a machine. It just so happened that the machine had a pilot. The key was to get rid of the aircraft.”
The Allied strategic bombing campaign against German oil production peaked in November 1944. There were massive raids involving as many as 1,100 bombers and over 900 fighter aircraft. Wally’s last mission over Germany on November 27, 1944 didn’t end the way he would have liked. It was a very successful mission as he downed three German Me 109 fighters. However, the tail section of the third German airplane came off and the debris struck his airplane. “The P-51 had an excellent gun-sight but I was awfully close and slightly underneath the target. I clicked off a few rounds but somehow miscalculated and my gunfire hit his tail section.” The engine oil and coolant lines of his aircraft were damaged. He turned his plane toward England and radioed his “boss man”, J. C. Meyer, and told him that his aircraft was damaged and he was returning to base. He dropped down to a lower altitude and slowed the airplane in an effort to keep the engine cool. The engine was overheating and the oil pressure was low. He managed to keep the airplane flying for about 20 minutes until smoke and flames began shooting up around the outside of the cockpit. “It was time to go. I knew that I was at the north end of the Ruhr industrial area but didn’t know exactly where.”
“I blew the canopy off. I was afraid that I would hit my knees on the edge of the canopy or hit the tail section of my plane when I jumped. I unhooked my belt, radio and oxygen lines. I stood up, crouching on the seat, and set the trim to put the plane into a dive away from me when I let go of the stick. I rolled the aircraft on its back and the next thing I knew I was out in nothingness.” He had the presence of mind to delay opening his parachute so as not to be “floating around in the sky” presenting a target to either ground fire or German aircraft in the area. He opened his parachute, thinking that he was at about 6,000 feet altitude. “I felt a jerk.” One of the riser buckles struck him in the chin and stunned him. “I felt a second jerk a moment later, came to, and when I looked around I saw that my canopy was hanging in a tree and I was dangling just a few feet off the ground.” He describes his first thoughts as regretting that during his first and only parachute jump “I missed out on hearing the sound of birds and the wind whistling through the orifice at the top of the parachute.” His second thought was that he had probably opened his parachute at 600 feet and not 6,000 feet.
There were quite a few German civilians standing around. We were told that we must try to escape but any thought of escape or evasion evaporated when he noticed that some of the people had dogs and were armed with shotguns and he was unarmed. “They took me to a farmhouse and stripped me down. They were looking for a gun.” A young German girl spoke some English and acted as an interpreter but it was difficult to communicate. He was taken to a fire station and locked in a small room. He was eventually taken to a German airfield about 5 miles away and interrogated. The German officer accused him of “flying bombers killing women and children”. It was about 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon. About midnight he was taken to a train station in Osnabruck, Germany which is approximately mid-way between Düsseldorf and Hamburg and about 60 miles from the North Sea. He was put on a train with four other captured American bomber crewmen. He struck up a conversation with a lieutenant, who was from Minnesota, but one of the American prisoners suspected that he was a German “plant” posing as an American because he was clean-shaven and had on a clean, pressed uniform whereas the other prisoners had spent several days in the forest evading capture and were unshaven and dirty.
“Durchgangslager der Luftwaffe” or “Transit Camp of the Luftwaffe” was called Dulag Luft by the POWs. It was located at Oberursel, 13 km north-west of Frankfurt-am-Main, and was recognized as the greatest interrogation center in all of Europe. Nearly all captured Allied airmen were sent there to be interrogated before being assigned to a permanent prison camp. During World War II, Germany and its European Allies captured 35,621 members of the Army Air Forces (AAF). Approximately 29,000 Allied POW’s passed through this camp in 1944 alone. While there the prisoners were kept in solitary confinement where the average stay in solitary was one to two weeks. According to the Geneva Convention, a prisoner could not be kept in solitary confinement for interrogation purposes for more than 28 days.
Each prisoner was studied by several psychologists in order to learn his likes, dislikes, habits and powers of resistance. Once the interrogation procedure was determined they began the process of destroying the POW’s mental resistance in the shortest possible time. If the prisoner showed signs of fright or appeared nervous, he was threatened with all kinds of torture, some of which were carried out. Others were bribed by luxuries. Prisoners were rewarded with clean clothes, good living quarters, food and cigarettes for answers to certain questions. Those who could neither be swayed nor bribed were treated with respect and handled with care in the interrogator’s office, but were made to suffer long miserable hours of solitary confinement in the 4’ x 10’ prison cells. Wally gave only his name, rank and serial number. The English-speaking German interrogator assured him that if he co-operated he would be sent to a POW camp with his friends where he could play baseball. After 19 days, the interrogators gave up on Wally and he was sent to Stalag Luft I in Barth, Germany, near the Baltic Sea, a POW camp for officers, where he was able to meet briefly with other members of his squadron who had also been captured. During World War II approximately 9,000 Allied Airmen, 7,600 American and 1,400 Royal Air Force, were imprisoned by the Germans at Stalag Luft I.
The POW’s were housed 24 to a barracks room with approximately 200 in each barracks and as many as 3,000 per compound. There were four compounds. It was very cold. Wally developed chilblains, painful inflammations caused by poor circulation and extreme heat or cold, usually on the toes. He received treatment from a British doctor. Rations were two slices of black bread and jam in the morning with ersatz coffee, soup (which the POW’s called water with obstacles in it) at midday and two slices of bread at night. Escape was impossible. Older barrack buildings were built on the ground and many tunnels were dug by the POW’s and subsequently found by the Germans. His barrack was built on pilings about 3 feet off the ground which made tunneling activity impossible.
The POW’s kept up with war news by listening to BBC radio broadcasts on radio sets assembled from parts obtained from German guards by bribing them with cigarettes. He did not receive any mail. He was allowed to send one letter per month and wrote letters to his mother. He did not know if she received them until he returned home to Milwaukee. In January 1945, the Germans allowed prisoners to send one radio message to loved ones. He sent a message to his mother and asked her to contact his commanding officer and tell him that he should “chalk up three more German planes to his total.” Wally’s mother received postcards and letters from over 100 amateur radio operators who had heard the message broadcast.
Red Cross parcels designed to provide 3,500 calories per day for one week were not available until after his release. Allied fighter planes were strafing and bombing the trucks used to deliver them to the camp. Wally was down to 110 pounds from his normal 145 pound weight.
He was released two days before Mother’s Day 1945, compliments of the Russian Army. The Russians brought in a mound of potatoes and rounded up cattle in the area and brought them to the camp. Some of the POW’s from western states would chase the cows, bulldog them and attempt to milk them, but the cows did not want to cooperate and resisted giving up their milk. They had rules regarding the potatoes. If you removed a cooked potato from the barracks stove, you were required to get a potato from the mound outside and place it in the stove.
On Mother’s Day Wally hitched a ride on a B-17 to camp Lucky Strike at Janville, France, near the French cities of Caen and Cabourg. It was the principal camp used for repatriated soldiers and liberated POW’s. There, to his delight, he met his brother Carl who had been a B-17 tail and waist gunner. Carl had parachuted from his stricken bomber over Yugoslavia and he was imprisoned in a POW camp near Poland.
He and his brother returned to the U. S. on the same ship and traveled to Milwaukee, Wisconsin where they were reunited with their mother and spent 90 days R & R plus another 30 days R & R in Miami Beach, Florida. The war ended while he was in Milwaukee.
Wally decided to remain in the Air Force. He was married in late 1945 and was sent back to Germany in 1946 where he was assigned to occupation duty in Schweinfurt, Germany, which was the target of massive allied bombing raids during the war. In one week of bombing, the Allies lost 60 planes a day during those raids. He also participated in the Berlin airlift and spent many years at Lincoln Air Force Base in Nebraska assigned to the Strategic Air Command. He retired in August 1965 as a colonel after a distinguished 24 year career.
Wally attends annual reunions of the 352nd FG. He estimates that there are only about 1,000 Aces left (a pilot must have at least five kills to achieve Ace status) and doubts that there will be many more created. “Today’s fighter pilots look at screens and fire missiles at enemy planes they may never see. It’s very different.”
He attended a reunion at his old base in England about 10 years ago and has been to Germany twice in the last four years to visit the small town where he landed when he parachuted out of his disabled aircraft so many years ago. Some of the local Germans, who were children at the time, remembered the incident. “They were extremely nice people.” He made contact with a retired German chief master sergeant who actually found the site where his plane hit the ground; he now has some pieces of metal from the plane as a souvenir.
He would like to be remembered as a “young guy who is efficient in things he decides to do.” He is enjoying life, including dancing, playing golf, and partying, and he doesn’t think of himself as being 85 years old and feels much younger.
Does he feel like he is the best fighter pilot in the world as most fighter pilots do? “No, but I knew that I was good and one of my jobs was to work with new pilots and teach them the guidelines and techniques to make them good.”
Just another “Blue-Nosed Bastard from Bodney.”
~ GEORGE REISWIG