Saturday, June 27, 2015

Profile 104: FINSHED—"A-Bar" as flown by Newton Cobb, 364th FG

A-Bar” is complete, prints are signed and pilot “Newt” Cobb is happy.

So am I.  For an airplane with such an exciting tale to tell, it's really a pretty bland P-51.  No nose art, no victory markings.  And Newt is not an ace or a famous combat leader.  He was, however, one of the many late-war replacement pilots sent in to fill depleted ranks and mop-up the last moments of the war.  He was simply a work-a-day soldier doing his job.

But war doesn’t play favorites with whom it honors.  Or curses.

Hold that thought.

By April 13, 1945, everyone (aside from the most crazed zealots) knew WWII in Europe was over, at least in terms of who was going to win.   Nazi Germany was so utterly crushed, every bullet they fired against the advancing Allies was as much criminal as it was a symbol of stupid human vanity.

I heard the words from a vet regarding this time of obvious defeat, “Why didn’t they just stop?!”  It’s human nature, I guess.  “Pride” can be such a costly thing…

But that’s the point of total, committed war.  You don’t stop until the enemy is defeated.  Utterly and wholly.  And until that point, the bullets must fly.

So that morning at Honington Field of Eastern England, four flights of four P-51s of the 385th Fighter Squadron took off for a sweep against an airfield at Tarnewitz, Germany.  The place was a weapons-testing facility that specialized in testing of aircraft machine guns and anti-aircraft cannon.  Read that again. Sounds like a rather—shall we say—ominous target to attack?  It’s kind of like a dog catcher getting a call to nab a pack of wild dogs and the dispatcher shouts out, "By the way, they're attack-trained Dobermans."

You get where this is going, right?  Right.   For the 385th, the 16 P-51s "got going" east.

Click to enlarge.  But it wasn't a terribly long flight for Newt & Co.

According to Newt, the cloud ceiling was around 3,000 feet.  Not terribly low but enough to provide an opaque background that would silhouette the airplanes.   This is an important point because, if you’ve ever been hunting, you know that a Duck is a lot easier to see on a cloudy day than if it’s coming out of the sun.

Again, you know where this is going, right? And I won’t even bother detailing how “Intelligence” had briefed the pilots that the test facility was not well protected...

So, Blue Flight (of which Newt was the rear-most airplane of the flight of four) peeled out to unleash 24 blistering .50 cal machine guns against the enemy.   Coming in low, line abreast and guns blazing, the Mustangs faced an unexpected eruption of defensive fire. Not unlike a watering system on a golf course—only the water was a mist of 20mm and 40mm cannon fire.  

The Germans weren’t firing for the sake of nothing; Tarnewitz indeed had targets—a handful of aircraft were placed, semi-hidden around the airfield.  And then there's that reflex-thing that makes you hit back if someone hits you...it doesn't matter.  The "Intelligence" folk were dead wrong.

“This was it. I was going to die...”  Newt sighed in recollection.   Yet, the Flight made it through on account of their shattering surprise.  The German gunners had barely enough time to get their guns firing, let alone aim the things.

But then, a moment of insanity occurred in the form of, “Blue Flight, make another pass.”  The Squadron Commander who observed from one of the 12 Mustangs orbiting ‘on top,’ made the call.  Newt recalled,  “For what?! The war was almost over!  Why risk this?!”   

Debate over "orders" was out of the question.  Blue Flight regrouped and formed up, again in line-abreast formation, for that ‘another pass.’  Passing a tree line that surrounded the field, the Germans responded with another fusillade of fire.  Accurate fire, too because every airplane in the Flight got hit.  Newt got the worst of it.

“A 40mm locked onto me.  I could hear it and see it; black puffs of smoke.  I (tried zig-zagging) and all of a sudden I heard a loud explosion and the sound of tearing metal - one third of my right wing was gone!”

And then another round hit.  This time, it sliced open the Mustang’s belly and severed the fibula of Newt’s left leg.  “I was fortunate it didn’t hit the tibia too as, without a (full) right wing, I had to hold full left-rudder to keep the airplane from snap-rolling onto the deck.”

Ok, picture this:  a P-51 Mustang, 350 miles per hour, on the deck, wing shredded and blood spurting from Newt’s snapped leg...and all of it happening that fast—BOOM!   There is no pain, no consideration, no time to do anything but flinch-react.

This isn’t like a blowout on the interstate.  It’s like losing an entire wheel on a Colorado mountain pass at 70 miles an hour.

“I kept control of the airplane,” Newt stated soberly.  “And it was such a shame.  A brand new airplane, too.”   

Again, the speed of the attack was crucial in that, a second later, the wounded man and his machine had hurtled out of sight.  Of course that made little difference to the urgency of the matter.  With a boot full of blood and a dying airplane, Newt knew he had to put down, quickly.  In a few moments he’d be dead from blood loss.
I tried to draw this JUST as the prop tips slice the grass...
In a gentle, terrible arc, Newt held his fractured leg hard against the rudder pedal and coaxed his wounded Mustang towards a farm he’d spotted.  Too low to bail, he tightened his harness and bellied-in at 150 miles per hour.  The crash was violent.

“As it hit the ground, that scoop underneath me dug in and I slammed forward, dislocating my shoulder.”  With the dust still wafting to the ground, Newt tried to apply a tourniquet to his leg but couldn’t on account of his splayed arm.  Clambering out of the dead airplane, he staggered as four men approached.  “I held out my (.45 calibre) holster in a signal I was surrendering.”

The four men turned out to be French and Russian prisoners who’d been pressed into working on the farm.  Removing Newt's own belt, one of the prisoners made a tourniquet and clamped the blood flow shut.
Can you imagine stamping down on your leg with half of it broken in two?
“A piece of (the 40mm round) was stuck in my leg.  I reached to pull at it but one of the men said, “Nix! Nix!” and pushed my hand away.  He took a handkerchief, pulled it out and pocketed it as a souvenir.  A Brit Florin* fell out of my pocket then and he took that too.   A young boy in Hitler Youth** uniform showed up on a bicycle and I told him to call the Luftwaffe.”

Newt was hoisted onto an oxcart, wheeled into a barn on the farm and placed on a mound of hay.  Left alone for a brief moment, Newt began to tear up his identification papers and stuff them into the hay but was caught.

“One of the men, a big one, had my .45.  He cocked it, placed it against my head and shouted, “Vo ist das papia?!  Vo ist das papia?!” Or, “What were you hiding?!”

Suddenly, “ACHTUNG!”  

A Luftwaffe Captain entered the barn and all stood at attention.  Of course, the .45 was now lowered.  Taking the weapon from the Russian, the Captain extended his hand to Newt and stated (in a British accent no less), “I am Doctor Straub.  How do you do?  You are Canadian?”

Newt declined and responded, "American."  As the majority of ‘enemy’ soldiers in the area were Canadian, Newt’s nationality was a non sequitur.  Still in possession of his military ID, Newt handed it to the officer. 

A few moments of study, silence…and the German stated, “You are from Panama.  I was the ship doctor on the Bremen (when it docked there).  Pier 18.”

The SS Bremen.  Newt was just a kid when he'd met Dr. Straub aboard the ship.
Well what do you know.  Newt knew the guy!*** (read note below)

Though amazed by coincidence, Newt was not happy about it.  With his leg beginning to pound with pain, the weight of reality sunk in.  He was now a Prisoner of War.  Panama, childhood memories and past smiles meant very little.

It was a truly stupid moment;  that late in the war, that useless of a target and that apparent foolishness of a command.  In the span of a few moments, Newt’s life had jumped a handful of fate’s streams to end up in a place he couldn’t have imagined.  Carried into the Captain’s staff car, he was driven to the airfield hospital.

Here, he met the young Wehrmacht soldier who—via telling the story to Dr. Straub—had likely been the trigger man against Newt.  The German was excited to meet Newt and claim his ‘victory.’  There was, of course, no excitement for the wounded Cobb.  Though he was indeed in a hospital, priority of treatment went to the Germans, who—all things considered—were struggling to care for themselves, let alone an American pilot.   But, the medical staff, seemingly unbound by the allegiances to Nazism were at least able to apply a crude version of mercy.  In meeting with the commanding doctor (a General, no less), Newt was given a simple treatment of logic—“I am a doctor and you are my patient.  If you act like a patient, I will treat you like a doctor.  But if you do not act like a patient, I will treat you like a prisoner.”

Newt was in no place to do anything but accept the Doctor's deal.  And the Doctors kept their end of the deal, too.  Hitler’s ‘elite’ soldiers, the SS, made visits to the hospital looking for allied prisoners healthy enough to take back to the prison camps.  Attention to Newt was deftly averted, though, as Newt describes, his wounds made it easy for the medical staff to intercede on his behalf.

“I remember a nurse.  Monica.  She came in, pulled away the blanket over my leg and gagged.  “Das stinkt!” she said.”  Gangrene had set into Newt’s leg.  In other words, flesh was rotting on the bone. And since the target at Tarnewitz remained, the air raids persisted.  Each time, a guard (whom Newt remembered had the name of Kurtz) had to carry him down three flights of stairs to the safety of the basement.  One can only imagine the scene of the German orderly hoisting the reeking prisoner down the steps…

“The doctors told me that my leg had to come off.” Newt stated matter-of-factly.  “They didn’t have penicillin. Infections like mine didn’t just stop by itself.  (On the day the Germans fled the hospital) I was reminded to tell the liberators that my leg had to come off immediately.”

This time, however, fortune favored Newt.  The Americans arrived with penicillin and a few injections and proper care later, Newt’s leg began to heal.  It was a long process that didn’t end until back in the states at Oliver General Hospital in Augusta, Georgia.

“I was out of place there,” Newt remembers. “It was a plastic surgery hospital and most of the guys there had burns or extreme disfiguring.  My heart went out to them.  But, (today) I think about this and see how they gave that for the freedoms we all can enjoy.”

“Break break!” (as an F-4 pilot taught me to say a few years ago to indicate that the subject is changing).

On one hand, the value of these stories is interesting because they’re so dramatic.  Newt’s has it all—guns, explosions, tragedy, drama, humanity, redemption…  However, I’d like to offer these stories have an even greater value because they, in spite of incredible circumstances, are also so ordinary.  Remember, Newt, the commanding general, Kurtz, Monica, the Squadron Leader…they're are all normal people, doing work that—after a few clicks of time—dissolve into a greater spectrum of life.

That guy at work?  The new customer at the window?  The owner of the business?  The doctor tapping your knee?  Who knows if that was once a Monica.  Or Straub.  Or...

Please don’t consider these just war stories.  They’re life stories, too.

By the way, Doctor Straub and Newt kept in contact, exchanging Christmas cards and well-wishes every year until Sraub died a few years ago.

The picture immediately below is of Newt’s dresser.  And that’s a picture of Straub.  And that's a picture of Newt and his bride.  And at the very end of this post, that's Newt, quite happy with his work-a-day P-51 drawing. 

To me, however, it's anything but work-a-day.  
Newt's dresser top.  Yeah, that guy in the German army uniform is Dr. Straub.
Thank you to the reader who hooked me up with this story.  It made me almost as happy as Newt was to tell it. 
Newt and my drawing of his P-51.  "This" is the coolest part of my gig.
*A Florin was another name for a higher-value coin.  

**Hitler Youth were a state-run program to indoctrinate young boys into the ideals of Nazism.


***Why was Newton Cobb in Panama?  Good question.  I asked Newt's son about that and this is what he wrote:  Dad was born and living in Memphis when his father passed away. It was during the depression and he was 8 at the time.  His mother, he and his brother moved in with her sister and her husband Captain Sam Fairchild (US Army) who was commanding a CCC Camp.  (Note:  the CCC was short for Civilian Conservation Corps, a work-program of the government designed to put Depression-affected Americans to work).

Shortly thereafter Cpt. Fairchild was transferred to Ft. Clayton in thePanama Canal Zone and Dad, his mother and brother went along as dependents. His mother married an optometrist in Panama who was a German National and that is how dad came to get a tour of the Bremen when it docked at Pier 18 in Panama.  Dad attended Balboa High School in the CZ and went into the Army Air Corps from there.  After the war he returned to the CZ where he ultimately retired and moved to Austin Texas.