“Yeager’s First Jet” by Roy Grinnell (P-51D Mustang)
Chuck Yeager had grown up poor on a hardscrabble farm alongside the Mud River in Myra, West Virginia. As a kid he butchered hogs, picked beans, and shot squirrels to help put food on the family table. In high school he was a fine athlete, playing on both the football and baseball teams. He was also a good student, particularly in mathematics. His hobby was tinkering with old cars.
In 1941, Yeager joined the US Army Air Corps as a private, serving at the Victorville, California airfield where he showed special aptitude as a mechanic. After two years he was promoted to sergeant and chosen for pilot training at Luke Field, Arizona, where Yeager’s instructors said he was a natural. They taught him to fly in a Stearman biplane, and soon he was wringing it out in aerobatics. He won his wings and a promotion to Flight Officer on 10 March 1943.
Assigned to the 363rd Squadron of the 357th Fighter Group, Yeager moved up to flying P-39s at the Air Corps base at Tonopah, Nevada. Training there was rigorous. Some of his squadron mates washed out, and others were killed in accidents. Yeager’s reactions to these misfortunes was a shrug. Anybody who bought the farm was “a dumb bastard,” which was a fighter pilot’s way of handling the possibility of his own death. One of Yeager’s fellow pilots was Bud Anderson, who flew with him throughout the war and became a life-long friend. Together they and the other young studs often visited the bars and whorehouses in Tonopah, and sometimes raised enough hell to be chased by the sheriff.
The group was then sent to California for training to fly as escorts for bombers. While there Yeager met his future wife, Glennis Faye Dickhouse. “She was pretty as a movie star,” he said, “and making more money than I was.”
Next, the group moved to Casper, Wyoming for still more training. On 23 October 1943, Yeager very nearly lost his life when his P-39’s engine caught fire and he had to bail out. He made a rough landing, fracturing several vertebrae. For a while it was questionable whether he would ever fly again, but he refused to give up, and after a long hospital stay convinced doctors that he’d fully recuperated. He rejoined his squadron just in time, for at the end of December, the 357th Fighter Group was shipped overseas to England.
Early in 1944 the unit became the first in the 8th Air Force to be equipped with Mustangs. The pilots received the rugged new fighters with great enthusiasm. Yeager thought the P-51 was the best aircraft he’d ever flown, and named his “Glamorous Glennis,” after his girlfriend.
On his seventh mission, escorting bombers to Berlin on 4 March, he posted his first victory, shooting down a Bf-109. The following day he flew escort duty again, and over France he was bounced by three Fw-190s. The German pilots were old hands; while two of them attacked him from behind, the third dove on him and shot up his Mustang. The engine seized, and he bailed out. He landed in a forest, bleeding from numerous injuries, and hid there for two days.
During that time he had nothing to eat but a chocolate bar, and at night would sleep huddled under his parachute. On the third day he was discovered by a farmer, who put him in touch with members of the French Resistance.
On 30 March, with the help of the Maquis, Yeager escaped to Spain. It was a miserable trip, climbing over the Pyrenees in the freezing cold and sleeping in caves, while the Germans searched the mountains from the air in a Fieseler Storch. But he eventually made it to Madrid, where he stayed until the U.S. consulate arranged for his return to England on 15 May.
His troubles were not over, however. He was told a regulation prevented anyone who had evaded capture from going back into combat. The theory was that if he were shot down again he might reveal information concerning the Resistance to the Germans. Yeager appealed directly to General Eisenhower, who cleared him to rejoin his group.
With his extraordinary flying skills, his 20/10 eyesight and his aggressiveness, Yeager established an excellent record. He once downed five German fighters in a single battle. And on 6 November 1944, he saw an Me-262 for the first time.
That day Yeager’s group, led by Major Robert Foy, was returning from a mission to Germany. The fighters were escorting B-24s that had bombed factories near Minden, 70 kilometers east of Osnabrük. With the 357th was another fighter group, the 361st, also flying Mustangs.
Once the bombers reached a safe area, the two fighter groups left them and split up. The pilots of the 357th swung west, heading back to base, and a few minutes later were attacked by five Me-262s of Kommando Nowotny. Yeager turned to meet them. He’d heard about the new type of aircraft, but actually witnessing their speed was a surprise. One of them fired at him and missed, and as it hurtled by, he opened his throttle and put his Mustang into a vertical bank. When he came about he fired his .50-caliber machine guns and got a few strikes on the jet. Moments later the enemy aircraft vanished into cloud.
In chasing the Me-262, Yeager had become separated from his wingman and the other Mustangs in his group. Now he was alone. He eased back on his power settings, and again turned for home.
As he flew over Achmer, he noticed what he thought was a well-disguised airfield with an extremely long runway. He decided to have a closer look, and descended toward it. His combat report described what happened next.
“I spotted a lone 262 approaching the field from the south at 500 feet. He was going very slow, about 200 mph. I split-essed on him, and was going around 500 mph. Flak started coming up very thick and accurate. I fired a single short burst from around 400 yards, and got hits on his wings. I had to break straight up, and looking back saw the enemy aircraft crash-land about 400 yards short of the field. A wing flew off outside the right jet unit. The plane did not burn.”
This was Yeager’s only encounter with an Me-262. By war’s end he’d posted eleven and one-half victories, most of them over Bf-109s.