Return to Y-29 (June 24th - 26th, 2011)
This event was organized by the Military Veteran Vehicle Club 2nd Armored Division Association "HELL ON WHEELS", who's club is situated at Zutendaal. The club was founded December of 1976 and consists of a number of WWII enthousiasts who own period military vehicles and organize various events throughout the year, often along with other reenactment groups.
The name “hell on wheels” was chosen after the division that was responsible for the liberation of the largest part of the Limburg province in Belgium.
Their first international meeting was held in 1977 at the military compound of Leopoldsburg and immediately attracted 63 participants. Since 1998, the club is located in a hangar of the Zutendaal airbase. Nowadays, their annual meeting at Zutendaal attracts over 250 vehicles.
2011 was the club's 35th anniversary year and the theme for this year's meeting was “return to Y-29”. Y-29 or as the Americans called it, Asch (named after the nearby town of Asch during WWII) was an Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) just east of Genk in the province of Limburg, Belgium. It was constructed in November of 1944 by the USAAF IX Engineer Command, 852nd and 846th engineer Aviation Batallion.
Its facilities consisted of a bunch of tents for housing, a dump containing fuel, food, water and ammo and a minimum electrical grid for communications and illumination.
The following Fighter Groups were stationed there:
366th Fighter Group
November 19th, 1944 - April 11th, 1945
The airfield was closed and abandoned on June 20th , 1945.
Today, all that remains is a small memorial in what is now a partly wooded area where Y-29 used to be. It serves as a tribute to the Fighter Groups stationed there during WWII. The monument is in the woods at location 50°57'46"N 005°34'25"E and is erected near the spot where the end of the runway used to be.
There is some confusion today as to the exact location of the WWII airstrip.
The map shows the WWI airfield at Asch marked in red, the current airfield of Zutendaal in yellow, the often incorrect position of Y-29 in blue and the correct location of the monument and runway in green.
On April 9th , 2003, a bunch of 352 nd FG veterans that flew from Y-29 during the War, paid a visit to the memorial.
Pictures left to right: Elmer Smith, Raymond Mitchell, Sandy Moats, Robert "Punchy" Powell, Jean Hood, Reece Lewis & Leonard Henderson (photo croutesy of Todd Gehrke)
The 2011 meeting was organized from June 24th until June 26th at Zutendaal airport. Besides over 400 re-enactors, 250 WWII military vehicles such as jeeps, motorcycles, trucks and tanks there was also a static display of A Stinson L5, a Boeing Stearman, a T-6 Harvard and off-course, to remember the 352nd FG, a P-51 Mustang.
A small memorial service in honor of the US pilots and ground troops at Y-29 was held on the eve of June 24th . To further honor those men and women, the Belgian Air Force organized a fly-by of a couple of F-16 during the ceremony.
The date was December of 1944. The Battle of the Bulge was raging, a major German offensive, launched through the densely forested Ardennes mountain region of Wallonia (Belgium), France and Luxembourg. Weather at the time of the offensive was dreadful, with temperatures far below 0°C and constant heavy overcast weather, which grounded the Allies' overwhelmingly superior Air Forces.
The 352nd Fighter Group, also known as the Blue Nosed Bastards of Bodney were ordered to prepare their move to the continent. They flew out of Bodney, England, at that time. The push into Allied territory and the fact that Axis airfields and terrain for new airstrips were overrun, made it possible to shift Allied Air Forces onto the European mainland.
This had several benefits. The tac-tical Fighter Groups, which bombed and strafed in support of ground actions, could stay close to the ground troops.
They could, as a result, provide faster response and an increased number of attack missions per day.
Escort units were given the oppor-tunity to fly farther into German territory and stay in that area for a longer period of time.
So it became that the 352nd FG, temporarily attached to the 9th Tactical Air Force at that time, was given the task to move to Y-29 airfield at Asch, Belgium. The airfield was located just north of the current town of Zutendaal.
Y-29 was the home of the 366th FG of the 9th Air Force at that time. The 352nd had been moved there on December 23rd , 1944, in response to the heavy activity of the Luftwaffe in support of the German Ardennes Offensice. The plan was for the 352nd 's Mustangs to fly fighter sweeps to clear the enemy from the skies and provide top cover for the Thunderbolts attacking ground targets.
Because of heavy fog, finding a forward airfield is not an easy feat as one of the veteran pilots and ace Raymond Littge of the 487th FS, 352nd FG recalls: “We arrived at the continent on the afternoon of December 23rd . After completing an escort mission to a target in the Ruhr Valley we landed at A-84 near Brussels towards evening, having been unable to find Y-29 due to weather. "
Fellow veteran pilot Donald S. Bryan of the 328th FS, 352nd FG recalls: “We were told we were deploying to Asch (Y-29). We were told that it was to be a deployment and we should take all of our clothes and supplies we'd need to stay for an extended time. Since we were told to take our clothing, we all dressed up in our Class A uniforms (storage space was limited in the P-51). I even had my Bancroft hat in the cockpit.
We all loaded up and started engines, but got a call from the tower to shut down. Squadron CO Earl Abbott went to get codes and found we were going on a mission before landing at Y-29. Fine. We got the signal to start engines again…
… we milled around for some time, not knowing where Y-29 was. The damn radar stations wouldn't help us, so we found an airfield with P-47s on it and landed there. Now remember a few things. One, we were all in class A uniforms. Two, our aircraft were all polished and waxed. Three, we didn't have a clue as to where we were – just on a 9th AF base.
They parked me alongside a P-47 with the other 328th men to my right. I filled out the Form 1, popped my Bancroft Fighter on my head, and walked up to two pilots that were standing alongside of the P-47. This P-47 was about as cruddy as anything I've seen with dirty exhaust stains all over the side, muddy and just crappy looking. The pilots looked worse if anything. Dressed in OD's with those combat boots. They looked like they hadn't shaved in a week or changed their clothes either. They might have had a shower a month or so ago.
Anyway, I hopped out of “Little One III”, walked up to them and said “Hi, where am I?”. The 9th AF pilot looked at me, looked at “Little One III”, looked at each other and said “God Damned 8th AF” and walked away. “
The next day, they finally got to their newly assigned base, Y-29. Conditions were hard compared to the comfort of their previous home base at Bodney. In the roughest winter in anyone's memory, the officers and enlisted men were housed in tents, with virtually no protection from the pervading cold and deep snow other than their heavily layered clothing.
Littge adds: “We lived in tents hidden partly in the woods on the south side of the field, and it was extremely cold in those tents at night. Most of us were frozen stiff the first night, not knowing how cold it got there after dark. The morning found covers frosted and the ground inside the tent covered with a layer of white frost. After the first night we went to bed in our heavy flying suits and wrapped ourselves in 10 or 12 blankets. The last one to turn in would fill the stove with fuel until it was red hot and then retire in the same manner”.
The skeleton force of the 352nd FG comprised of 75 pilots, 6 ground officers and 100 airmen. Rather than a ground crew team being assigned to a single plane, the hard-pressed selected crews found themselves individually maintaining numerous planes with no shelter.
To make matters worse, the 352nd FG top ace at that time with 26.83 aerial victories and the 328th FS commanding officer, Major George Preddy, was shot down and killed by friendly anti-aircraft whilst persuing a FW-190 at tree top level. You can read his biography here.
On to New Year's Eve. On December 31st , 1944, the 352nd received its orders for the first day of the New Year. They were to provide escort for 8th AF bombers on a mission to bomb targets near Berlin. Lt. Col. John C. Meyer was disappointed with this assignment as he firmly believed that the Germans would try to attack in the early morning of January 1st . He believed the Germans would think that the Americans would be hung over from New Years' Eve celebrations and that their bases would be an easy target.
John C. Meyer was considered by all to be an excellent leader, but above all a good thinker, always planning ahead. He was a strong advocate of the theory “think like the enemy to defeat the enemy”.
It just so happens that Meyer's hunch was spot on. The Germans launched Operation Bodenplatte, a last desperate attempt to break loose the Ardennes Offensive that had been halted at Bastogne. Approximately 800 German fighters (FW-190s, Me-109s and two Ju188 Pathfinders) took off from their respective bases just before 8:30am and formed up over Aschaffenburg in a coordinated attack on 17 Allied advanced airfields. So secret was the operation that the Germans own ground forces were not notified of the large formations of German fighters that would be flying overhead, which resulted in a couple of friendly fire accidents for them.
At some Allied bases, the Luftwaffe attack was devastating, destroying aircraft and rendering airstrips useless. The RAF was hit heaviest, they lost 120 planes. But at Asch, the result was unlike anything the Luftwaffe had imagined…
Firmly believing his hunch of an enemy attack on New Year's day, Meyer called his pilots together on New Year's Eve and said “No parties until the following night”. He also tried to convince the 9th AF commander, General Quesada, to allow him to put up a patrol the following morning. Command reluctantly agreed on the condition that the 352nd be able to field a full group of 36 fighters for the escort mission in the afternoon.
The P-47s of the 366th had also received their orders for the New Year. The 391st FS was to leave early in the morning to attack German armor at Ondenval. Two flights of the 390th FS were also scheduled to take off slightly later in the morning with the same objective.
In the early hours of New Year's day the following pilots of the 352nd FG were assigned to the morning mission:
Lt. Col. John C. Meyer
HO-M Petie 3rd
Lt. Col. William T. Halton
HO-T Slender, Tender & Tall
Capt. William Whisner
HO-W Moonbeam McSwine
The plan was to start engines at 9am, take-off at 9:20am and to be back on the ground at 10:15am. This would allow time to refuel and meet the bombers overhead at noon for the afternoon mission.
As the German 11th Jagdgeschwader approached Asch, eight P-47 Thunderbolts of the 390th FS were just forming up over Asch to head out over the Ardennes in search of German armor. As they finished forming up they spotted flak bursts over the Ophoven airfield.
At the same time, 12 P-51 Mustangs were taxiing to the runway. Upon lining up, Lt. Col. Meyer also saw the flak bursts and radioed the tower to inquire, but they had nothing to report.
Heading out to Ophoven to investigate, the 390th P-47s were surprised to see a large formation of FW-190s and Me-109s approaching Asch from the northeast at 1500ft. They jettisoned their bombs and external tanks and attacked, causing confusion among the German attackers and breaking up the formation. This turned out to be key to the “Legend of Y-29”, as the battle is known nowadays, as it allowed just enough time for Meyer's Mustang group to take off.
The 390th claimed 7 enemy aircraft in this attack against no loss of their own.
Meanwhile Meyer was taking off with the rest of the 487th behind him. As his wheels just left the steel plated runway, he found himself facing head on with the oncoming JG11. With a full load of fuel in his fuselage tank, making low altitude maneuvering very difficult, and with his gear still retracting, he fired at an oncoming FW-190 scoring hits and sending the enemy aircraft crashing into the field. It was to be the first of many victories for the 487th FS that day.
The ensuing battle went on for about 30 minutes and the 11 pilots of the 487th claimed 23 victories without any losses. Only 3 aircraft became damaged during the attacks. The battle was also a special one for the ground crews of the 352nd , as for the first time, they saw “their airplanes” in live dogfights over the airfield.
Their actions gained the 487th FS a unique honor in that they were the only Fighter Squadron during the war to receive the Distinguished Unit Citation, which was normally only awarded to a whole unit. It also earned Lt. Col. Meyer his third Distinguished Service Cross.
Below are some of the stories taken from the actual combat logs of the participating men of the 487th FS, with thanks to the 352nd FG Association archive.
From the combat log of Lt. Col. John C. Meyer:
“Immediately upon getting my wheels up I spotted 15 plus 190s headed toward the field from the east. I attacked one getting a two second burst at 300 yards, 30 degree deflection, getting good hits on the fuselage and wing roots. The E/A half-rolled, crashing into the ground. I then selected another 190 chasing it to the vicinity of northwest of Liege. On my first attack I got good hits at 10 degrees 250 yards. The E/A half-rolled and recovered just on top of the trees. I attacked but periodically had to break off because of intense friendly ground fire. At least on three occasions, I got goods hits on the 190, and on the last attack the E/A started smoking profusely and then crashed into the ground. Out of ammunition, I returned to the field, but could not land as the field was under attack. I proceeded west and was bounced twice by 109's and was able to evade by diving and speed.... "
From the combat log of 1 st Lt. Alex F. Sears:
"I was flying white 2 on Colonel Meyer's wing. We had just taken off when we were bounced by forty or fifty Me109's and FW190's. One Me109 came at me head-on and we made several passes at each other, both of us firing. On the third pass I got some strikes on his engine and shot part of the tail section away. He started burning and went into a lazy spiral and crashed. I claim one Me109 destroyed. “
From the memoirs of 1 st Lt. Alden P. Rigby:
“The day started for me about 7AM. The weather was the same dark, damp, cold foggy feeling. The fog had lifted a little, and was being replaced with haze, and a cloud cover at about 1500 ft. I had the feeling that this would improve to allow some sort of a mission a little later.
I had checked my plane before breakfast, and found the crew getting the ice from the wings, and the frost from the canopy and windshield. After eating, Sgt. Gillette had it started, and going through the pre-flight routine. Few of us were up and about, to even learn of a long escort mission to Berlin, scheduled for later in the day. I had gone to the briefing tent and learned from Col. Meyers that he had requested a short patrol mission before the Berlin run. Huston and I were requested to find a few more sober pilots, just in case.
At about 9AM the fog and haze had thinned to a point of being able to see the trees at the end of the runway to the east. General Queseda had just given the ok for a short mission, using only part of our planes. Start engines at 9:00, take-off at 9:20, and be back on the ground at 10: 15. This would give us time to refuel, and meet the bombers overhead at noon. A few P-47 pilots from across the field were given the same instructions. The briefing was the bare essentials, since we did not expect more than a look at the "bulge." Col. Meyers would lead the 12 planes, and I would be in his flight, as "white 4." This was New Year's Day, and we had not seen the "Hun" aircraft for 2 days. The German pilots could be celebrating a little also, WRONG!!!! Little did we know of their plans for exactly 9:20AM at Asch, and 15 other Allied bases.
I kicked the tires, and climbed aboard at 9:00. The plane had been warmed up, and the tanks -topped off. The cock-pit was warm, and I was ready for a comfortable ride, as I rolled into position behind the Col. The P-47s had taken off a few minutes earlier, and headed straight for the front lines below the clouds. We had just gotten the green light from the makeshift tower, when we noticed bursts of flak just East of the field. Surprise, and even shock would be an understatement. We next saw what looked like at least 50 German fighter aircraft about to make their first pass on our field.
We could not have been in a worse position, unless loaded with external fuel (or bombs). We were sitting ducks, and our chances were slim and none. It was not a difficult decision to take off, since that was the slim chance. The next 30 minutes were filled with action and anxiety, that perhaps had not been seen, or felt before or since.
I had turned on my gun heater switch earlier, and now had the presence of mind (and prompting) to turn the main switch on.
The take-off roll was very close, rapid, and somewhat organized. We did not wait for help from the tower, or our own departure Control Officer. We just went. I am certain there were a few short prayers to just get off the ground. I had my own sort of set prayer, consisting of 6 words that had been used many times. Being caught on the ground was simply a fighter pilot's nightmare. We had made the situation even worse by having our fuselage tanks filled. This would make a big difference in our maneuverability, until about 50 gallons could be burned off. This would be my first take-off ever with the gun sight illuminated on the windshield. Things were happening too fast to even be afraid, that could come later. There was no training to cover such a situation, instinct simply had to take over, and it would have to be an individual effort.
Getting off the ground was extremely difficult. I was fighting Meyers prop wash, so I had to keep the plane on the steel mat a little longer to establish better control. It was of some comfort to just get airborne. Our ground gunners were firing a lot of shells at the enemy, and in all of the confusion, were firing at us as well. This would have been their first test in anything near such conditions, so they were not hitting anyone, but it was a little disturbing.
My landing gear had just snapped into the up position, when I opened fire on an FW-190 which was on Littge's tail. I told him on the radio to "break left", this put the 190 right in my sight. I could see strikes from the tail up through the nose. The plane rolled over from about 300 ft., and went straight in. I then picked out another FW- 190 headed east. It appeared that he was headed for "the Fatherland." I dropped down on his tail and opened fire at a greater distance than was necessary, since I had the speed advantage. During the chase my gun sight failed. The bulb had burned out, and I did not have the time to change it, even had I known where the spare was. I expended even more ammunition before enough hits brought the smoke and crash in the trees. I was now in very difficult position, no gun sight, low on ammunition, and high on fuel. I had my tracers loaded to show only when I had fired down to 300 rounds. I was now into that short supply, with still a lot of fighting to be done. I knew that mine would have to be at very close range without the sight.
There did not seem to be any over-excitement, or even caution. It was not just another day at the office, but more of a day that all of the training had led up to. The odds were getting better with each minute. And I did have reason to be even a little optimistic. Considering getting off the ground in the first place, and being over friendly territory was much more than could be hoped for a few minutes earlier. The friendly territory added another dimension, since bailing out (if necessary) meant friends on the ground for a change.
I did not have any trouble finding the field after the lengthy chase on the 2nd 190. The flak was still there, though not nearly as heavy, and I could see at least 2 dogfights. I could see a few fires on the ground, and wondered if any could be "ours?" I could see a P-47 in a turn with an ME- 109 at about 1000 ft. I knew that the "Jug" could not turn with the German at the low altitude, which left me with a bit of a problem.
I really needed what ammo I had left for self-preservation, but when the 109 had the advantage, I did not have a choice. As the P-47 mushed to the outside, I came up from beneath, and- from very close range fired enough rounds to see hits on the left wing, through the cock-pit, and right wing.
The 109 went in from about 500 ft. Before joining the fight, I reasoned that only I would know of my ammo shortage, and gun sight problem. I thought perhaps sheer numbers would count for something.
The fuselage tank would now permit reasonable maneuverability near the ground, and I would very soon need that. I knew that I was now down to what could be my last burst, even if all 6 guns were working.
My last fight was with the best German pilot I had seen at any time. He could well have been their Group Commander. I would be the 2nd or 3rd P-51 pilot to try for a reasonable shot. He put the 109 through maneuvers that had us mostly watching, i.e. a "split-S" from about 1000 ft. I recall seeing the aircraft shudder, then pull wing tip streamers as his prop wash shook the treetops. He was then back in the fight and very aggressive. I was glad to have another P-51 in the vicinity, since my firepower could only be a bluff as far as I knew. I recall being very impressed by the way the 109 was being flown, and hoped that I could in some way get in a reasonable firing position. I knew that I would only have one chance, (if any) because of his ability, and my limited ammo. After about 5 minutes, I did not see any more firing from the German. It could have been that his situation was as bad as mine. His maneuvers now seemed to be on the defensive side. It was what seemed like 10 minutes, (but was probably less) before the other P-51 turned the 109 in my direction, where he turned broad side to me from something less that 30-40 yards. It was close enough for me to see the pilot clearly, and what proved to be the last of my ammunition score a few hits on the left wing, the engine, and then shatter the canopy and cockpit. I had again guessed right for the very close proximity, high deflection angle firing without the gun sight. Some might think in terms of being "lucky." That could well have been, but I am convinced of other factors being involved (help from above for one).
The fight was over, as well as any other that I could see anywhere near the field. I now had time to think, and wonder about what had happened. How had we been able to get airborne? What had happened to the field, and would it be suitable for landing? This would not be a problem, since I still had plenty of fuel to find a field on the Continent, or even get back to England. How many of our planes did not get off the ground? How many of ours lost in the air, or on the ground? What had happened to my gun sight, and could I have done much more with it? I was not happy about wasting so much time and ammo on the 2nd FW- 190.
I was not at all anxious to land, though I knew the fighting had to be over. I would take my chances without ammo in the air rather than be in any hurry to get back on the ground at Y-29, or any field to the west. I could see several fires burning near the field, and what looked like 2 or 3 on the field, but the runway looked good. I could see the rows of P-51's and P-47's, and could not believe the field could have gotten by with so little visible damage.
My fuselage tank was down to fighting weight, and the fight was over. Flying around the area at about 2,000 ft. with more airspeed than usual was a great feeling. I had not been able to use this much speed since chasing the 2nd FW-190. I also had the time and judgment to check to the rear, which I had not done much of before. “
From the combat log of Capt. Sanford Moats:
“I was flying Yellow three in Major Halton's Flight. As I took off I spotted about 15 plus FW-190s at 100 feet coming from 3 o'clock on their way to make a pass at the airstrip north of our field. At the same time I noticed approximately 15 Me-109s flying top cover at 3500 ft just below a thin cloud cover. Two ‘190s broke into my wingman Lt. Huston and myself, and we entered a Luftberry to the left under intense light friendly flak. I closed on the first ‘190 and looked back to see a ‘190 closing on the tail of my wingman. I called him to break as the ‘190 started shooting at him. I then fired a short burst at 300 yards and 30 degree deflection at the ‘190 ahead of me, observing strikes in the cockpit area and left wing root. He burst into flames and I saw him crash and explode as I continued the turn. The pilot did not get out. Approximately 50 enemy aircraft were in the vicinity and the entire area was full of friendly flak.
I chased a ‘190 that was strafing a marshaling yard as my second target. He broke left and started to climb. I fired a short burst at 200 yards and 20 degrees deflection, observing a concentration of strikes on both wing roots. Both wings folded up over the canopy of the enemy aircraft and he dropped straight in. The pilot did not get out.
I continued my left turn and rolled slightly above and behind another ‘190 which broke left. I fired a short burst and observed hits on the left side of the fuselage, canopy, and the left wing root. He burst into flames, the canopy came off and he crashed. The pilot did not get out.
I then broke into several ‘109s and ‘190s who were coming at me from the rear, heading towards Germany. They split up and I picked one ‘190 who broke into me.
We made several head on passes and I pulled up and came down on his tail, firing a two second burst, observing strikes from wingtip to wingtip.
He leveled off and hit the deck. I closed and fired several bursts from dead astern, observing strikes all over the tail and wing sections. As we passed over Maastricht, I fired a short burst that exploded his belly tank and my aircraft was hit by 40mm ground fire. At this time I only had one gun firing and the enemy aircraft kept taking evasive action on the deck as we crossed the front line. I fired a burst at him every time I had a chance and observed many strikes in his tail section. I climbed above the enemy aircraft and made an attack from above and to the right. I fired and observed a few strikes around the wing root. The enemy aircraft broke left, pulled up slightly, and dove into the ground. The pilot did not get out.”
From the combat log of Capt. William Whisner:
“I was leading Red Flight. As we were taxiing out to the strip I saw some air activity east of the airfield. The squadron consisting of three four-ship flights, was taking off singly. As I started down the strip, Colonel Meyer called the Controller and inquired about bandits in the vic. As I pulled my wheels up, the Controller reported that there were bandits east of the field. We didn't take time to form up, but set course, wide-open, straight for the bandits.
There were a few P47s mixing it up with the bandits as I arrived. I ran into about thirty 190s at 1,500 feet. There were many 109s above them. I picked out a 190 and pressed the trigger. Nothing happened. I reached down and turned on my gun switch and gave him a couple of good bursts.
As I watched him hit the ground and explode, I felt myself being hit. I broke sharply to the right, and up. A 190 was about 50 yards behind me, firing away.
As I was turning with him, another 51 attacked him and he broke off his attack on me.
I then saw that I had several 20 mm holes in each wing, and another hit in my oil tank. My left aileron control was also out, I was losing oil, but my pressure and temperature were steady. Being over friendly territory I could see no reason for landing immediately so turned towards a big dogfight and shortly had another 190 in my sights. After hitting him several times, he attempted to bale out, but I gave him a burst as he raised up, and he went in with his plane, which exploded and burned. There were several 109s in the vic so I engaged one of them. We fought for five or ten minutes, and I finally managed to get behind him. I hit him good and the pilot baled out at 200 feet. I clobbered him as he baled out and he tumbled into the ground.
At this time I saw 15 or 20 fires from crashed planes. Bandits were reported strafing the field, so I headed for the strip. I saw a 109 strafe the NE corner of the strip. I started after him and he turned into me. We made two head-on passes, and on the second I hit him on the nose and wings. He crashed and burned east of the strip. I chased several more bandits but they evaded in the clouds. I had oil on my windscreen and canopy so came back to the strip and landed.”
"The Legend of Y-29" by artist Troy White