Of all the American pilots who flew and fought in World War II, only a handful managed to shoot down aircraft from all three axis countries.
And just one, Louis Curdes, scored an Axis trifecta plus an American plane to boot. Curdes’ unusual story has gone viral online, where it was embellished with distortions and half-truths. Here are the facts.
2Lt Louis Curdes was one of the most aggressive pilots in the 95th FS, with three confirmed and a damaged. Curdes, who had joined the 95th FS three weeks earlier, reported;
`After the bomb run, I was flying in a vic with Capt McArthur, and another flight of P-38s was right behind us. Capt McArthur suddenly called “Look out for the ‘109s!” and we banked sharply and pulled up in a steep turn to the right. A ‘109 came across my sights at a 45-degree angle, passing to the left. I kicked left rudder and followed it down. When within 300 yards and at about 30 degree deflection I let go a very long burst. I could see my tracers curving right into his nose. I broke off at 100 yards and passed in front of the ‘109, which nosed over and went straight in. There was a big splash and an oval of white foam.
`I straight-and-levelled and started to look for my wingman. A ‘109 came in from the right at a steep angle. I did a level turn tight to the right and the ‘109 went over me. I followed him down, shot several bursts and thought I saw pieces fall off. However, the ‘109 screamed off for home along the deck. I then turned around looking for company. Beneath me, I saw a P-38 100 ft above the deck on one engine. Three ‘109s were coming out from shore after him at heights of between 500 and 1000 ft and still one-and-a-half miles or so away. I started to head them off, climbing very slightly. They evidently didn’t see me, and I gave the right-hand plane a big burst. This ‘109 was lagging a bit behind the other two, which were in a very tight formation. My tracers went into him, puffs of black and white smoke came out and he did a wingover straight in.
`The other two ‘109s started to dive at the one-engined P-38. I made a 30-degree deflection shot at the leader, closing to 20 degrees and making about 350 mph. The ‘109 burst into flames, exploded and flopped into the water. I overshot both him and the P-38, lined up on the deck, and made a tight turnaround. The other ‘109 was pouring lead into the P-38. I came around on his tail, shot one burst, missed, and the ‘109 headed away for home. The other P-38 went into the sea.’
A few minutes later Curdes spotted some more Lightnings, one of which also ditched into the sea. Another, which was on a single engine, he led back to the coast. Shortly after crossing it they both were about to run out of fuel, so Lt Curdes landed wheels-down in a dry river bed whilst his companion belly-landed in a nearby field. The other pilot was picked up on 3 May and Curdes flew his aeroplane out on the 4th after gasoline and a few hundred feet of pierced steel planking (PSP) had been brought to the site.
The 95th FS flew another B-25 escort to Aranci Gulf on the 24th, during which Lou Curdes made the only claim, downing a C. 202 for his sixth victory. Four days later the 95th and 96th were assigned a similar mission to Sardinia, the target this time being Alghero airfield. The 95th scored a probable whilst the 96th’s pilots claimed two destroyed, one probable and two damaged (all C. 202s).
The 95th FS had become involved in a major battle over Benevento, in southwest Italy, on 27 August. On the morning of 27 August during another B-25 escort to Benevento by the 95th FS. Fifty enemy fighters met the USAAF formation over the coast near Naples and a swirling dogfight ensued, during which 2Lt Lou Curdes became separated from the rest of his flight whilst damaging a Bf 109. This did not deter him, however, and he continued to fight until he had shot down another Messerschmitt. Curdes then saw a P-38 in trouble, went to its aid and downed another Bf 109, thus increasing his score to eight destroyed and two damaged – the best the remaining 95th pilots could do was two damaged.
However, Curdes lost his squadron mate to enemy fighters and one of his engines took some serious hits before he finally headed for home. He seemed to have the situation under control as he reached the Italian coast, but his other engine was then damaged by a burst of flak. Curdes knew his Lightning (P-38G-10 42-13150/`AZ’) was done for, so he crash-landed it on a beach a few miles south of Salerno, set it on fire and awaited his inevitable capture.
Lt Curdes and some other PoWs escaped from their Italian jail on the morning of 4 September, but they were recaptured almost immediately and sent to a maximum security camp. Four days later the Italian government agreed to an armistice with the Allies, whereupon the PoWs were given rifles and blankets by their former guards and then allowed to walk away. Unfortunately, the ex-PoWs were far behind the German lines, and for the next eight months they lived as fugitives, aided by Italian partisans. Curdes finally crossed into Allied-controlled territory on 27 May 1944, exactly nine months after he had been reported missing in action.
After returning home he soon volunteered for another combat tour, this time in the Philippines, flying P-51s with the 3rd Air Commando Group. During this tour Curdes claimed a single Japanese aircraft destroyed. He then requested a return to combat duty, and was back in action with the 4th Air Command Squadron (ACS) of the 3rd ACG in the Pacific later in the year. The side of Curdes’ Mustang was adorned with a variety of victory markings – German, Italian and Japanese (he downed a `Dinah’ while flying a P-51D with the 4th ACS on 7 February 1945). There was also a single American flag, which recalled the C-47 that he had crippled in an attempt to stop it landing in error on a Japanese-held airstrip on Batan Island, in the Philippines.
On February 10 1945, Curdes, now a Lieutenant, formed a squadron of four aircraft that departed from Mangaldan Airfield in the Philippines. Their objective was to investigate if the Japanese were using a temporary air strip on the southern tip of Taiwan. No airfield could be found and Curdes returned to the Philippines. Flying over the island of Batan, the squadron split; Curdes and Lieutenant Schmidtke headed north, while Lieutenants Scalley and La Croix headed south.
Scalley and La Croix located a small Japanese airfield and attacked it and also called for reinforcements; Curdes and Schmidtke headed south to join them.
During the attack on the airfield, La Croix was shot down and made an emergency landing in the sea. As the squadron circled, Curdes could see that his companion had survived, and remained in the area to guide a rescue plane and protect the downed pilot. While covering La Croix, Curdes noticed a larger plane was preparing to land at the Batan airfield. He went to investigate and found the aircraft to be Douglas C-47 transport with US insignia. Curdes tried to make contact by radio, but was not successful. He manoeuvred his P-51 in front of the plane several times trying to get the C-47 to alter course, but the C-47 maintained its course.
Curdes lined up his P-51 directly behind the C-47 and fired his .50 caliber machine guns into one of the C-47s two engines, causing it to fail. The C-47 still maintained its course for the Batan’s airfield so Curdes then disabled the remaining engine forcing the pilot to ditch in the sea. The plane successfully ditched without breaking up, and the crew was able to evacuate into a lifeboat. La Croix approached and was brought on board the C-47’s life raft, where he was informed about the situation. The plane had apparently been lost in poor weather and its radio had stopped working. As it was also running out of fuel, the pilot headed directly to the island’s airstrip, unaware that it was under Japanese control.
At this point, the dusk and low level of fuel of the P-51 forced Curdes to return to base. The next morning, he accompanied the rescue PBY to pick up the downed C-47 pilot and 11 crew members, including two nurses, all of whom had survived the incident. To Curdes’s surprise, he discovered that one of the nurses, named Svetlana Valeria Shostakovich Brownell, was a woman with whom he had had a date the night before the incident. He married Svetlana in 1946. Contrary to subsequent reports, Curdes did not receive a Distinguished Flying Cross for that event, although he did receive credit for the “Kill” and displayed it on his aircraft.
Curdes returned to flying P-38s when he transferred to the 49th FG near the end of the war.