Jan. 29, 1944: Target — Frankfurt
Seventy years ago, the 8th Air Force Fighter Command had a very good day. After four days on the ground due to weather, the fighters were able to get back in the air. The day’s bomber target was Frankfurt, Germany.
For the first time in World War II, the mighty 8th had more than 700 bombers attack targets on one mission. Eighth Air Force sent up 675 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and 188 Consolidated B-24 Liberators. Seven hundred and sixty-three bombers hit their primary targets. Another 46 B-17s bombed Ludwigshafen, Germany, because of a deviation from their planned bomb route.
At that time, fighter command assigned areas along the bombers’ route to the various fighter groups. The Republic P-47 Thunderbolt groups got the close-to-home areas due to their short combat radius. The Lockheed P-38 Lightning and North American P-51 Mustang groups took those areas further out from home station. The fighters in one area handed off the bombers to the fighters in the next area instead of escorting them the entire way.
For that mission, fighter command sent up more than 600 fighter aircraft. Eighth Air Force sent the bulk, which were P-47s and P-38s. Ninth Air Force added its P-51s to the fighter shield. Altogether they claimed to have shot down 39 enemy aircraft. The 56th Fighter Group claimed seven enemy aircraft shot down, but unfortunately it lost one pilot.
For the 56th FG’s part of the mission, planners divided it into two groups, “A” and “B.” Lt. Col. David Schilling, 56th FG commander, led the “A” group. Schilling’s 37 P-47s took off from Halesworth, England, at 10:20 a.m.
Making landfall over Knokke, Belgium, the fighters rendezvoused with the first box of 1st Division bombers at 11:39 a.m. at 29,000 feet southwest of Koblenz, Germany. On the way to the rendezvous point, a pair of Focke-Wulf 190s attacked the “A” group of fighters. Lt. Kenneth Lewis was shot down. Schilling shot down one of the FW 190s. Group “A” landed at 1334 hours after handing off to the “B” group.
Group “B” was commanded by Lt. Col. Francis Gabreski, the 56th FG’s flying executive officer. Taking off at 10:29 a.m., they arrived at the rendezvous point at 11:52 a.m. The last three wings of the 1st Bomb Division arrived at the same time. While there, Gabreski’s pilots were attacked by a dozen German fighters, two of which Gabreski downed.
Second Lt. Anthony Cavallo of the 63rd Fighter Squadron shot down Messerschmitt Me 210 aircraft. The 61st FS received credit for the three other kills that day.
Capt. Joseph Bennett shot down one Messerschmitt Me 110 by himself and shared credit for a second with 2nd Lt. Praeger Neyland. That was Neyland’s first combat flight after being wounded by 20mm fire 15 days earlier. Second Lt. Melvin Wood also shot down an Me 110. Group “B” landed back at Halesworth at 1:35 p.m.