Thomas manned ‘The Fortress,’ then rode ‘The Mustang’  

By Freddy Burdeshaw
Special to The Citizen

Earl N. Thomas is one of a rare breed these days, even among the many rare breeds of “The Greatest Generation,” the Americans that won World War II, and established the United States as a superpower.

While helping to defeat Adolf Hitler and his Nazi cronies in that awful war, Thomas piloted 33 strategic bombing missions in the venerable B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber; this qualified him for a ticket home from the fighting in Europe. At that time bomber crew members were commonly relieved and sent back to the United States for softer duties after completing 25 missions.

Thomas is an uncommon man. Instead of accepting more relaxed work back in the safety of the homeland, he took the very unusual step of volunteering for more combat, this time flying the great P-51 “Mustang” fighter. He eventually flew ten combat missions in that aircraft into Germany.

The 88-year old Thomas, a resident of Peachtree City, settled in the metro area when he hired on with Delta In 1949. He and wife Patricia, have three daughters, Kathleen, Deborah, and Mary who live on the northside. His son, John, also lives in Peachtree City.

After World War II and separation from the Army Air Force in 1946, Thomas hired on as a pilot based in New York City flying with Trans-World Airlines. This began a rewarding two years making international flights to Europe and the Middle-East. He then moved to Atlanta when he became a pilot with Delta Airlines. He would spend 32 years with Delta before retiring.

“I have nothing but praise for Delta, the many different types of planes I flew with the company, and its management,” Thomas said.

Growing up in Roanoke, Va., Thomas was a high school athlete with considerable potential; he played football, basketball and baseball.

“I was the jock in the family,” he said. “My older brother was the brains, being valedictorian of our high school which graduated 900 students that year.”

Thomas has continued sports throughout his life, especially golf. Last summer, he was still winning a “semi-annual” Stableford tournament at the Canongate course. A few years back, he was four-time club champion at the old Lakeside golf club. He won the inaugural club championship staged at Lakeside and the very last. He retired the trophy when Lakeside closed, and it is displayed on a shelf in his apartment. Thomas has literally shot his age or better hundreds of times.

During his military service Thomas continued to play basketball and baseball on base teams. It was shortly after the beginning of World War II in 1939, that Thomas unwittingly took the first step toward the military and joining the big fight; of course, neither he nor anyone else could anticipate when and if the United States would become involved.

“I joined the Army National Guard in January 1940, just trying to make a few bucks.” Thomas said, “Like most people during the Great Depression, I wanted to make a little money somehow. The Guard was paying a dollar every drill night which was once a week.” The path he was to take in the coming years proved to be remarkable.

Thomas’ Guard unit was called to active duty in September 1940 and assigned to providing coastal defense in the area of Hampton Roads, Va. As a young corporal, Thomas’ duties included man-handling 155-millimeter artillery projectiles that weighed 95 pounds; he soon had his fill of that. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Thomas decided he wanted to spend the war flying, so he applied for duty as an aviation cadet. After passing the necessary tests he was accepted, thus beginning his life’s work as a pilot. Over the next couple of years, various phases of flight training took Thomas to stops in Miami, Florida; Montgomery, Alabama; Jackson, Mississippi; Columbus, Ohio; Pyote Texas, and Alexandria, Louisiana.

Thomas earned his commission as a Second Lieutenant and his pilot‘s wings in May of 1943. The day approached when he would ship out overseas and join the great crusade.

In December, 1943 he went to Grand Island, Nebraska and took possession of a Boeing B-17 “Flying Fortress.” He would fly the big plane across the Atlantic to the European Theater of Operations--England. The B-17 was a four-engine heavy bomber used by the U.S. Army Air Force and the 8th Air Force in the daylight precision strategic bombing campaign of World War II against German industrial, civilian, and military targets. Its maximum speed was 287 mph and its range was 2,000 miles. From its belly was dropped more bombs than from any other U.S. aircraft in the war. When the first copy rolled out for its initial flight, bristling with many machine guns, a reporter had called it a “Flying Fortress.” The name stuck. The plane was immortalized in movies such as “Twelve O’Clock High,” starring Gregory Peck.

Thomas landed what he thought was “his” Fortress in Scotland after ferrying it from Nebraska. He was surprised that the aircraft he had flown across so many miles of ocean was not going to be assigned to him any longer. In fact, after he checked in with his permanent unit at RAF Molesworth, Cambridgeshire, England, he learned standard practice was for aircraft to be randomly assigned on a daily basis. No crews had “permanently assigned planes.” At Molesworth, Thomas was assigned to the 360th Bombardment Squadron, which was one of four bomb squadrons in the storied 303rd Bombardment Group (Heavy), the “Hell’s Angels” Combat Team. Its historic achievements are well portrayed by, among many others, the distinguished aviation artist Keith Ferris.

The very first combat mission that Thomas piloted took place February 4th, 1944, and it was one of his most memorable. He and his ten-man crew took off in a B-17F nick-named “Doolittle’s Destroyer” with a load of over 5,000 pounds of bombs they would drop on a target at Frankfurt, Germany. Thomas was to fly a number of missions in the B-17F model. But, most of his combat flying was in the B-17G version of the aircraft which included a vital modification. More guns were added under the nose in what was called a “chin turret.“ This was necessary because the Fortresses had been vulnerable to head-on attacks by Luftwaffe fighters. The G-model was armed with a total of 13 50-caliber machine guns.

To his dismay on that first mission, Thomas’ aircraft developed engine trouble--a malfunctioning supercharger, the device that improved power in the thin air of high altitude by forcing compressed oxygen into the engine. This was a perilous development. Thomas had problems keeping his bird in the formation with the other planes--an arrangement known as the “combat box.” Sometimes called “the battle box,” the formation allowed the Fortresses to protect one another with their combined defensive firepower against hostile German fighters.

“I fought desperately to prevent that plane from becoming “a straggler.” Thomas said, “I already knew the odds were against “stragglers” returning to England. Stragglers were planes that couldn’t stay in formation because they had been damaged, or were having engine trouble. I was just trying to stay alive. You survived by staying in formation”

Second Lieutenant Edgar Miller would co-pilot with Thomas on 16 missions before he qualified to pilot his own plane. He was an observer that day on Thomas’s first mission as pilot.

“I was more scared on that mission than on any other I flew during the war,” said Miller. “ We were in that F-model plane with no chin turret guns, and fighters made eight or ten passes at us head-on. Being just an observer, there was nothing I could do to fight back, and that was agonizing. Tommy talks about that supercharger being a problem, but mainly I remember those fighters!”

While the box formation offered safety, it also had it drawbacks because forming all the planes up in the air extended the flying time of a typical mission. Thomas said, “It would take an hour or an hour and a half for the entire box to form sometimes.”

Throughout the war, Thomas and his crew avoided the fate of many other flyers that were shot down, killed, or seriously wounded. Early B-17 losses had been as high as 25 per cent on average, and when attacking some targets the loss rate was even higher. Fortunately, the aircraft that Thomas piloted never lost more than one engine at a time, and his planes were never damaged enough by the enemy to jeopardize his life or the lives of his crew.

“For me, the worst part of flying combat was the sight of other B-17s being shot down or blown up in mid-air,” said Thomas, “Many guys were unable to parachute to safety. I never saw a single B-17 go down where all the crew members got out.”

In March 1944 Thomas was promoted to First Lieutenant and flew 114 hours of combat missions, sometimes flying four or five days in a row. The most harrowing missions were the nine he flew to Berlin.

“Those flights lasted over nine hours, in the very cold conditions of high altitude, and through extended periods of thick flak in the well defended Berlin area.” Thomas said.

The mission on the 6th of March was probably the toughest of all as around 100 Messerschmidt 109s and Focke Wulf 190 fighters swarmed around and through the formations. Thomas said, “We lost more planes and more men on that mission than on any other.”

“The only good thing about those Berlin trips was that the Luftwaffe fighters would not come after us while we were over Berlin flying through flak.” Thomas said, “They didn’t like flak any more than us.” “Flak” was jagged pieces of metal from exploding anti-aircraft fire. It caused enormous damage to planes that were hit; bomber losses to flak were heavy throughout the war. Thomas said, “With all the noise from the aircraft engines, if you were close enough to hear the explosions, you knew your aircraft had been hit.”

By late April 1944, Thomas had earned a position as a lead Crew Pilot. He eventually completed 33 credited combat missions in the Fortress. After taking part in the pre-D-Day bombing, he flew his last B-17 mission in the aircraft known as “Sack Time”-- bombing oil refineries in Hamburg, Germany on June 20th 1944. The attack on Hamburg required an extraordinarily long bomb run of nine and one half minutes at low speed, in clear weather--a hazardous situation. Many planes were repeatedly hit by flak but they continued to bore in on the target and dropped their bombs with high accuracy.

Thomas, by then promoted to Captain, received his second Distinguished Flying Cross for his role in the Hamburg mission. Due to his competence as a pilot and his leadership, all of his original crew completed their combat tours without injury.

“Tommy was the best pilot I ever knew!” Miller said. “ He was a natural pilot. He taught me everything I knew in those 16 missions I flew with him. He was just tremendous--very gutsy. When we were taking evasive action from fighters, he put that B-17 into positions where you wondered if we would come out of it.”

According to Miller, Thomas always wanted to be a fighter pilot. After his last flight in B-17s with the 360th, Thomas transferred to the First Scouting Force at Steeple Morden Airfield to fly the P-51 “Mustang.” Thomas was among the first bomber pilots to join the first of the experimental P-51 reconnaissance units.

The North American Aviation P-51 was a long-range single-seat fighter. It was fast, well-made and highly durable. It was armed with six 50 caliber machine guns. Its maximum speed was 437 miles per hour and with external fuel tanks, its range was 1, 650 miles. It gained fame for its role as an escort for strategic bombers going deep into the German heartland--the only fighter suitable for such long missions. Thomas learned to fly the P-51 in only a week and began flying reconnaissance missions in four-plane formations. Their mission was to fly ahead of the bomber groups and provide reports on weather conditions and enemy defenses.

Two “Mustangs” would be flown by experienced fighter pilots, the other two by ex-bomber pilots like Thomas. The ex-bomber pilots were needed in the Scouts because they best understood what was required for the bombers to penetrate the European weather conditions.

On one “Mustang” scouting mission, Thomas was to lose a fighter pilot wingman who developed engine trouble, over Germany. Thomas said, “He asked me to give him a heading for neutral Switzerland which was not too far away. I never found out what happened to him. It was very rugged terrain.“

After ten P-51 missions in September 1944, Thomas volunteered for formal P-51 fighter pilot training back in the states. But it was not to be; “the needs of the service” prevailed and because of his bomber experience, he was required to become a B-17 instructor pilot at MacDill Air Base in Tampa, Florida. After a short stint at MacDill, Thomas transitioned to duty as a B-29 “SuperFortress” instructor pilot.

This new, pressurized successor to the B-17 had the range for long Pacific missions. Later, the “Enola Gay”--probably the most famous B-29 of all--was piloted by Paul Tibbets to deliver the first atomic bomb strike on Hiroshima, Japan that ended the war.

When the war was over, Thomas remained on active duty until the summer of 1946. He spent his last days in the Army Air Force ferrying B-29s to their last resting place in “the bone yard” at Davis-Monthan Air Base near Tucson, Arizona. That was then.
Thomas and his calico cat “Baby” recently entertained a visitor in their apartment and he spoke of his part in the long-ago, big battles with the Luftwaffe over the skies of Europe. In those years, all Americans generally understood what was happening “over there.” Today, precious few Americans understand what happened there back then. Even fewer Americans can say they were actually there, like Thomas.

Thomas is now in the middle of another big battle. He suffers from cancer and is under-going chemotherapy that saps his strength and his energy. Nevertheless, as he firmly told his visitor, “I plan to win this battle and be back on the golf course by April.” The visitor left believing every word.

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