24 December, 2014

Profile 100—JUST STARTED: "Our Mary," the Republic P-47D as flown by Edwin Cottrell, 48th FG

"The end of a matter is better than its beginning and patience is better than pride."
                                                                            Ecclesiastes 7:8 NIV

Stuff gets heavy when you quote the Old Testament, doesn't it?  Well, this is a heavy story.  Not woeful heavy or sentimentally heavy.  More like "make you think 'heavy'."

But before we get into that, have a look above.  It's my opening sketch of a P-47D-23 named "Our Mary" that belonged to the 493rd Squadron of the 48th Fighter Group.  As an image, the airplane is just another of the 1,000's of P-47-shaped cogs in the WWII war machine. But after this story is finished, "Our Mary" will represent one those not-uncommon but certainly impossible moments of humane inhumanity.

How's THAT for heavy?!

Well, have a look at the photo below.  When I first started this project, it was the only known photo of the airplane and all I had between my questions and her pilot's recollections.  Though I think we're going to be ok in bringing Our Mary back to life, old warriors seem to have much better recollection regarding people rather than things.

In other words, Our Mary's pilot remembers more about the guy on the wing*, (Crew Chief, Red Nichols), the regular pilot of the airplane (George Pullis) and the two guys who died on December 17, 1944 (James Watson and Art Sommer) than the color of the words painted on the cowl.

It's time to meet Lt. Edwin Cottrell.

"That was a long time ago, John," Ed says.  "I'm afraid I wasn't paying that much attention to the markings on the airplane.  But I remember the day very well."   And well he should because he was on the edge of America's most costly battle of WWII, The Battle of the Bulge.

Over the past 24 hours,  German infantry and armored units sprung their audacious sledge-hammer-like swing through Belgium in a spectacular fury.  Taken off guard, American forces faced the Blitzkrieg-style war that had gobbled up France, Belgium, Poland, the Ukraine and (parts of) Russia in the war's early years.

Of course, it was a stupid move, especially with the 20:20 hindsight that time inevitably provides.  But in the moment, chaos reigned and the Germans prevailed.

Ok, hold that thought.  I need to take a tangent; it'll make sense later on.

I remember a conversation with WWII ace Walker "Bud" Mahurin where he seemed to be almost apologetic of the Luftwaffe's failure to protect Germany.  He explained how the Nazis made certain Luftwaffe leaders into scapegoats for loss of aerial superiority.  Never mind the Nazi's ridiculous strategies, tactics and inability to wage war against the rest of the world.  Of course many of the German pilots resented it and switched their loyalty to a kind of code of honor rather than the regime.

Yeah, it's tough to humanize anyone wearing that logo (i.e. swastika).  But fellow P-47 pilot Morrie Magnuson explained war like this, "War is conducted by leaders and acted out by followers. It doesn't make the followers innocent.  It just makes the leaders more responsible."

Indeed, Ed recalls the words of a friend who survived the infamously cruel Bataan Death March. "He said that 99% of the Japanese were vicious.  Just vicious.  But it was that 1%—that 1%—that made life bearable, if even just enough to survive."

Got that?  Ok.  Back to the story.

It was a dreary morning even without the hammering of retreat going on just a few miles away.  At the rough forward-airfield of Sint Troiden (St. Trond to the Ami's) days of icy rain created bone-chilling puddles that sloshed into leather boots and flying suits.  A sodden blanket of gray blocked out the sun and snow fell from the sky in big, wet flakes, leaving the P-47s of the 493rd Fighter Squadron to soak up the cold out in the open.  In spite of it all, it was going to be a hot day and everyone knew it.

Being a "new" pilot, Ed hadn't the seniority to rate his own airplane.  On this day, he drew "Our Mary," the regular mount of George Pullis.  To George, the woman on the nose had enough significance to warrant the pinup.  But to Ed, Our Mary was simply a tool of the trade.  And he was going to put her to work somewhere near Koblenz, Germany.

The 48th FG was part of the 9th Air Force.  And though there were plenty of tangles between the Luftwaffe, the majority of the 9th's work was tactical, close-air support.  "Trains, tanks and trucks," as it's often said, and the P-47 was particularly effective in eliminating them.  Armed with eight .50 calibre machine guns and able to carry 2,000+lbs of bombs, P-47s scrubbed the countryside of anything that moved.

When asked for specifics, Ed paused for a moment, then stated, "Our target?  I believe they were tanks.  Yes...we were attacking tanks.  I'm pretty sure they were going to be going up toward The Bulge and we had to stop that."   And so, the 493rd was tasked with pinching off the flow of German equipment towards the north.

So, while the starters whined, the engines coughed and the cold aluminum skin vibrated to life, Ed's mind was not so much on meeting the Luftwaffe as he was steeling his mind to get in low, put the bombs on target and get back to base.

Which he did.

But no one would have guessed how.

Stay tuned to the next post because things are going to move very quickly from here on out.

*Nichols is on the wing to help direct the taxiing of the big-nosed airplane around the airfield.  Kind of a cool job if you ask me...

12-26-14 UPDATE:  WHOO HOO!  Significant Progress Alert!!   Man, this is turning out to be a fantastic project...