Personal Stories

From Stratofighter to Dive Bomber

Air Classics, Feb 2002 by Hahn, William W

How Gil Wymond and the men of the 65th Fighter Squadron quickly develped the P-47 Thunderbolt Into a Potent Ground Attack Aircraft

In reading most of the literature published through the years on the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, I feel that Lieutenant Colonel Gilbert 0. Wymond, Squadron Commander of the 65th Fighter Squadron, 57th Fighter Group, has never been fully recognized. I find nothing that commends Wymond for his ingenuity -and one must realize that the British Eighth and the American Fifth Armies, together with their support segments, owe much of their success in the Italian campaign to the development of the Thunderbolt into a dive bombing, close support platform.

Amendola Airfield was situated just off the end of Foggia Main. The 57th FG had given up Foggia Main to occupy this little 3600-foot strip of mud and hard-- stands. The place was a mess as landing fields go, but it was our little home. The B-17s had moved to Foggia Main and they could be constantly heard warming up and taking off, roaring almost overhead.

The 57th had received four new P-47s in mid-December 1943 for training purposes. Pilots returning from the States were not overly complimentary about the P-47, complaining that it was too big, too slow, and too heavy. The P-47 had seen action in Europe as a long-range, high-altitude escort for the bombers and it had achieved some recognition. It was not, however, a close support aircraft.

There was little enthusiasm when the P-47s were first flown by the pilots of the 65th. The P-47 could not dive bomb and the eight .50-caliber machine guns did not seem to get down to the ground for good low-level strafing. Our pilots were used to harassing the enemy by strafing rail and truck areas, infantry and anything that moved. They were expert at that!

On 12 January 1944 at about 1700 hours, the flap on the doorway of our pyramidal tent flew open. Standing there wet and cold, was Lt. Col. Wymond. "Hahn, we are being transferred to the 9th Air Force in England to do high-altitude escort. I ain't going and you are the reason for us not going." I sat there with my four bunkmates - Bob Furman, Utica, New York; Harmon Alley, Albuquerque, New Mexico; Robert and Elbert Adams (twins), Tyler Texas - not knowing what the hell Wymond was talking about. "Hahn, come with me," he said as he headed out of the flap.

Wymond climbed into the cockpit of his Thunderbolt, received just that week, and pointed to the wing tank and the belly tank fuel releases (all drop tanks). He told me he wanted to be able to dive, move his left hand off the throttle, pull the wing releases (supposedly with bombs), and never lose sight of the target.

This was not possible with the poorly designed tank releases. The thought of this monumental change in-field, with engineering help, was a stunner. How would we do it?

Wymond and I sat on the wing until 0130 hours discussing potentials. We finally decided we could not spare any armorers from the line and missions could not be interrupted. I chose one helper, Charles Apell (Grand Haven, Michigan), and we began next morning to devise a temporary release. It was a real sorry excuse for a solid release but we had it accomplished in two days.

One could see how awkward it would be to pull the left and right wing release simultaneously. We needed to combine the release handle for the two wing tanks in some manner. We did this on the prototype by laying a flat steel bar across the three releases, applying a fulcrum to the floor to enable the pilot - with one pull - to release the two wing bombs. This was not a satisfactory application because the belly tank could not be used.

Appel and I devised a method of laying the two wing releases on the floor. Connecting them with a cable that we ran forward up the firewall and back to the instrument panel, we then added the belly tank release. The pilot had only to lean forward, watch his target and pull the two small toggles on the instrument panel to release the bombs. This was eventually duplicated in most of the squadrons. It was crude but effective and later improved upon by Republic with the P-47D-30 series.

Wymond came along to tell us Generals Strickland and Brereton would arrive next day to see a demonstration of the conversion. Not certain the contraption would work successfully, we loaded two 500-pound bombs and applied fins but no fuses. This would prevent an explosion or, if there was one, it would be of low order. No problems. We had difficulty with braces to keep the bombs from swaying but be finally rigged a sway brace. We were ready.

Wymond took off shortly after noon and climbed to 6000 feet, rolled over and began his dive. He dropped to about a 1000 feet before pulling the release. The bombs fell perfectly, landing just short of the runway and burying about 30 feet into the ground. The Generals were impressed and told Wymond to go ahead and equip all 24 aircraft in the squadron for dive bombing. Appel and I were far from convinced that this was the way to go.

We kept working on ideas and finally we decided to run a copper tube forward on the floor of the cockpit and up the firewall and then back to the instrument panel just in front of the stick. This would allow the pilot to lean forward into the gunsight, find his target and, without moving anything but his left hand, he could pull the releases. Appel and I were satisfied this was the way to go. We converted all 24 Thunderbolts to this release. We had to devise new sway braces to keep the bombs steady under the wings. A loose bomb swinging out there could play havoc with the pilot. Same for the belly tank/bomb shackle.

There was no thought that we could make electrical impulse releases. That would complicate the situation overly much. We stayed with the mechanical idea and, suddenly, the 65th/57th was doing the usual bombing, strafing, and harassing of the enemy. We found we could replace the American gunsight with a British type used in Spitfires to better advantage.

We could also raise the sight four inches and that would allow us to boresight the guns in a slightly more depressed position, better for strafing. We boresighted the eight .50s to converge at 300 yards. This concentrated fire power could destroy a house, a truck, or a rail car with one short burst.

Wymond was so excited about the potential for the Thunderbolt that he had us hang two 1000-lb bombs under the wings and he took off and dropped them on a target in Yugoslavia. From that point, it was determined that the P-47 could carry two 1000-pounders under the wings and a 500-- pounder on the center line rack. The P-47 became a weapon of serious destruction.

The Group went forward to Cercola, near Naples, then was moved to Corsica to commence Operation Strangle.

The idea was to cut every railhead, tunnel, and bridge the pilots could find. They would starve the German army. No ammunition, no fuel, no food. Things were going well when suddenly planes began returning with bombs hanging loosely from their shackles. The pilots, low on fuel, could not get rid of the things and were forced to land. Often, the jolt of the landing would cause the bomb to drop onto the runway and tumble nose to tail down the strip.

Fins would break off. The nose fuse safety would fly off, the tail fuse would break off about halfway - exposing a live detonator. What to do? The bomb demolition crews were in Bastia, 30 miles away. With planes still in the air running on empty, it was necessary for the armorers to rush out to the bomb and very carefully unscrew the fuses - trying to prevent the exposed detonator from driving home. We found little enthusiasm among armorers to do this. They felt it could lead to a very short life span.

It fell upon the armament chief to sit by the runway and when one of the bombs fell off, he drove out to the bomb, carefully removed the fuse and dragged the bomb off the field. This probably happened two dozen times during a short period. The cause could not be determined. We knew the bomb shackle was of a different model than on our faithful P-40s. The P-47 had a new B-10 shackle and the P-40 used a B-7. The only difference appeared to be the fulcrum point of the rear lug on the B-10. The front lug was a short pull, the back lug had a six-inch arm to the release. When the bomb was attached, this put an even pull on the arm.

We could never be certain that this was the cause of the hung bomb, but we were suspicious. We tried every way to ease the pull on that fulcrum but met with little success. Two pilots had been killed when a bomb exploded on the runway and the shrapnel had flown into unsuspecting bivouac areas. One bomb had exploded just opposite the control tower. The force of the blast was horizontal. The first section of the tower was destroyed - the second section dropped straight down and then slowly began to topple onto the runway. The two men in the tower were unhurt but badly shaken. We needed to find an answer.

One cold and soggy morning about 0400 hours, we received word to change the bomb loads from 500-pounders to fragmentation bombs. This meant we would defuse, defin, and drop the bombs onto the ground. Suddenly, while in the process of dropping these bombs, one hung. Miracles do happen! We were able to determine that the fulcrum of the B-10 was indeed the culprit. We immediately requisitioned all of the available B-7 shackles in the theatre.

We found very few. Most had left the theatre with the P-40s. We flew back to Africa and searched all the repair areas. Finally, we had enough for the 24 planes in the squadron. The mounts had to be modified to handle the wider B-7 but this was accomplished. Things began to improve after that.

Armament received a shipment of ten-foot-long paper-- wound tubes equipped with an electrical exciter on one end. We were to learn that these were rocket tubes to be mounted under the wings, between the gear leg and the gun ports. A cluster of three was installed under each wing. The P-47 then became the most feared fighter-bomber of the war since it could carry six 4.5-inch rockets, 2500 pounds of bombs, and eight .50-caliber machine guns.

Once the shackles were changed and pilots became confident of their ability to release the bombs, they began "skip" bombing into tunnels and against shipping. There is little doubt that the conversion of the P-47 into a fierce ground support aircraft was an instrumental part of the success of the Normandy Invasion as well as the defeat of the German army in Italy. The German infantry feared the P-47 as much as the Allies feared the Stuka dive bomber earlier in the war.

The unfortunate part of this whole episode is that Lt. Col. Wymond was never recognized for forcing this development and for taking the risk of dropping the first test bombs. He never gave up interest in perfecting the P-47 as a ground support aircraft. He and the enlisted armorers of the 65th deserve much credit which has never been forthcoming. Colonel Wymond was killed in a Republic P-84 shortly after the end of the war. I feel he deserves recognition for developing "in-field" the best air weapon the Allies had during World War Two.

Copyright Challenge Publications Inc. Feb 2002
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

"Cockpit#65 - my P-47 - note the three tee handles on center console - This was an in-field modification - the brain child of 65th CO Gilbert O. Wymond and our Armament chief Bill Hahn - two handles released the bombs and the third released the belly tank - These mods along with raising the optical gun sight a little made the P-47 the efficient ground attack weapon it proved to be." - Dwight Orman